Why Trump fired an inspector general -- and why it matters

In praising Atkinson, Horowitz vowed that “aggressive, independent oversight” of the Trump administration will persist without him. Yet the entire slate of IGs—73 across the federal government at last count—is at the mercy of Trump’s wrath, including Horowitz himself. Without consequences, the White House remains undeterred in its continued shattering of norms and laws designed to keep the public safe and hold government officials accountable.

And it’s not just IGs who have reason to worry: Potential whistleblowers might be deterred from speaking up about abuses they witness. Atkinson alludes to the possibility of such a chilling effect in a statement he released upon his firing. “I have faith” that other IGs “will continue to do everything in their power to protect the rights of whistleblowers,” he wrote. “Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.”

The possibility of a chilling effect on whistleblowers is especially worrying now, as tens of thousands of deaths are expected as a result in part of the Trump administration’s incompetence and lies about COVID-19, and as the administration oversees a massive program of financial and economic relief. Government employees who witness wrongdoing may be intimidated by the firing of Atkinson and the president’s record of hostility toward whistleblowers into into biting their tongues. At the very moment we should be encouraging a culture of watchful candor and public accountability, Trump’s move risks sending potential whistleblowers into a silent crouch.