by Owen Lubozynski
On August 15, 2019, Michael Atkinson ’91 found himself reading the whistleblower complaint that would lead to the first impeachment of then-president Donald Trump.
“What struck me initially,” he says, “was how the politically explosive nature of those allegations, which posed an existential political threat to the president of the United States and, to a less extent, the prospects for his party, would put Congress’s normally nonpartisan protections for whistle-blowers and inspectors general to the ultimate test.”
The weeks and months that followed would also put Atkinson’s fortitude to the test, as he grappled with stonewalling, and retaliation, from the administration that had appointed him as its intelligence watchdog.
Esprit de Corps
Atkinson’s journey to this moment began in Pulaski, New York., where he grew up in a small fishing and farming village. He earned an undergraduate degree from Syracuse University and worked for two years as a legal assistant for a law firm in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at Cornell Law School.
He chose Cornell for its reputation and its location—and its offer of generous financial support didn’t hurt. “Deciding to attend Cornell Law School was one of the easiest—and best—decisions I ever made in my life,” he says.
At law school, Atkinson participated in moot court and trial advocacy classes, taught by Clinical Professor of Law Glenn Galbreath, that helped him see a trial practice as something he could enjoy and for which he might be suited.
“Unlike some of my other classes, I never considered those to be work, even though I probably put more effort into them than any others (except for Property I and II, which were brutal),” he recalls. “I al-so especially liked the team aspects of those activities. I figured that if I could get paid for doing something that I enjoyed so much, and have the opportunity to work closely together with really talented people, then that could make for a rewarding career in more ways than one.”
Another rewarding collaboration, and pivotal law school experience, was meeting his future wife, Kathryn Cameron Atkinson ’92, now chair at Miller & Chevalier in Washington, D.C.
Atkinson remembers that he arrived at school expecting to work hard and be surrounded by very bright classmates.
“What I had not really expected was the camaraderie and shared support that existed at Cornell Law School, which came out during small group study sessions, many nights in the law school library, and drinks and pool at the Chapter House.”
He notes, “I am a naturally introverted person, which I am sure my law school classmates would attest to, but I felt very comfortable at Cornell Law School. I thank my professors and classmates, and especially my two roommates, for that sense of comfort and inclusion. I have tried to model and capture that sense of authentic collaboration, open-mindedness, and esprit de corps throughout my career and as part of the organizations that I have led.”
After graduating, Atkinson joined Winston & Strawn, in Washington, D.C., where he focused on white-collar defense, internal investigations, and complex civil litigation. He was a partner at the firm from 1998 to 2002.
Subsequently, he spent fourteen years as a prosecutor with the United States Department of Justice, serving leadership roles in several departments. In May 2018, he became the inspector general of the intelligence community.
The whistleblower complaint that landed on Atkinson’s desk in the summer of 2019 concerned a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. According to the whistleblower, Trump pushed Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Finding the complaint credible and an urgent national security concern, Atkinson was legally required to send it to the director of national intelligence, who was in turn legally required to send it Congress. When Joseph Maguire, the acting director, declined to do so, and the Department of Justice put up roadblocks, Atkinson contacted congressional intelligence committees directly to report that he had received a credible complaint he was not being allowed to disclose.
After the resulting scrutiny forced the White House to release details of the call, the House Intelligence Committee began an investigation, and in December 2019, the president was impeached. He responded with vitriol toward Atkinson and, the following April, fired him. Meanwhile, lawmakers disclosed the whistleblower’s name to conservative media, and the whistleblower was reportedly bombarded by death threats.
Atkinson notes that a poll conducted by the Government Business Council, the same month that the impeachment proceedings concluded, revealed that one in three federal workers said they were less likely to “report an act of perceived wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.” He adds, however, “The good news is that half of the respondents said that Trump’s attacks would have no impact on their willingness to expose malfeasance, and 16 percent said they were now more likely to blow the whistle.”
In a public statement issued after his dismissal, Atkinson urged government employees, “Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.”
While Atkinson’s integrity and competence were publicly questioned by Trump and his allies, he also had many defenders, including a group of former colleagues and a group of law school classmates, both of which published letters of support. “I was also fortunate to receive many private statements of support from friends, law school classmates, colleagues in both the U.S. and abroad, and people I had never met,” Atkinson says. “I also have received some pretty funny text messages, and enjoyed a nice Zoom call, about the events with my two former law school roommates, Abel Montez and Randal Acker. The response from colleagues and friends has meant the world to me.”
Since last April, Atkinson has given some guest lectures at universities and law schools, including Cornell. This February, he started a new job as a partner at Crowell & Morning, joining its White Collar and Regulatory Enforcement and Investigations group and co-leading its national security practice.
Two things have stuck with Atkinson since the whistle-blower affair: first, “the bravery of the public servants—the whistleblower and the impeachment inquiry witnesses—who spoke up about the alleged wrongdoing, in the face of enormous personal and professional dangers, to protect the rule of law and for the common good”; and second, “how fragile the norms of protecting whistleblowers and inspectors general turned out to be in the context of such a political firestorm.”
He notes that he gets a lot of individual credit or blame for the incident, “usually depending upon one’s political views,” but wishes more people knew about the courage and support that others displayed behind the scenes.
“I could not have accomplished what I did without the mutual and moral support from my colleagues,” he says, “particularly the courage and competence demonstrated by the three other core members of the team that I assembled to review the whistleblower’s complaint.”
He adds, “I also think people should know the role that other inspectors general provided in terms of supporting my former office as part of that whistleblower complaint and the continuing role they play to protect current and future whistleblowers. This was— and remains—a true team effort.”