"There was no one better at methodically building a white-collar case," said Brian Seeley, a former federal prosecutor who worked closely with Atkinson. "Michael never cut corners, he always kept an open mind."
The Trump administration in 2017 expressed interest in Atkinson as the next U.S. attorney in Washington — a surprise to the prosecutor, who isn't even a registered Republican. The job didn't pan out, but he was asked to become the inspector general of the intelligence community, a position overseeing lawyers and investigators seeking to uncover waste, fraud and abuse in the nation's 17 intelligence agencies.
Atkinson wasn't sure. He was concerned the president demanded loyalty and fired those who disagreed with him. Yet, after administration officials repeatedly told him they wanted someone independent in the job, he felt "reassured that I wasn't expected to be a partisan," he said. "It didn't seem that risky if that is what they all wanted."
At his confirmation hearing in January 2018, Atkinson said protecting whistleblowers who demonstrated "moral courage" in exposing corruption was a key component of the job. "We want to make sure, as part of that program, that they don't have a fear of reprisal," he said.
Confirmed in May, Atkinson set about improving morale and pushing for aggressive investigations. His nominal boss at the time, then-Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, described him as having "excellent leadership qualities, sound judgment and faithful adherence to his oath of office."
Coats left his post just as the whistleblower's complaint reached Atkinson's desk. While most complaints — the office received more than 600 in fiscal 2019 — were poorly constructed and led nowhere, this one was different. As he examined the seven-page document, Atkinson was impressed by its incisive writing and research. It painted a devastating portrait of Trump and his White House, alleging the president was pushing Ukraine's leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
The complaint focused on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In the call, the whistleblower wrote, Trump pressured Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
If Atkinson found the whistleblower's allegations credible and of "urgent concern," he was required by law to send the complaint to Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, who then would forward it to Congress.
Atkinson assembled two lawyers and an investigator to inquire. They interviewed those familiar with the Ukraine call and vetted the whistleblower's background. In a letter to Maguire on Aug. 26, 2019, Atkinson wrote, his office found the complaint to be urgent and credible.
But Maguire, who could not be reached for comment, did not send the complaint to congressional intelligence committees.