WASHINGTON — Michael Atkinson says he did what the law required, nothing more.
"I did what I had to do," he said. "If I had kept quiet, I would have spent the last year, probably the rest of my life, not sure I could live with myself."
Atkinson can trace his test of conscience to a precise moment: just before noon on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, at his L-shaped desk in a nondescript office overlooking a highway in northern Virginia. That's when he stopped dead at the second paragraph of a whistleblower's complaint: "The president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election."
If true, Atkinson thought, this is a constitutional forest fire.
What happened next in those pre-coronavirus days seems ancient, if familiar, history, with the complaint sparking a congressional investigation and President Donald Trump's impeachment, an action Democrats are threatening to duplicate in the wake of pro-Trump extremists storming the U.S. Capitol last week.
But now, speaking for the first time, Atkinson described the behind-the-scenes story of how the complaint became public. At the time, he served as the intelligence community's internal watchdog and was plunged into a universal crucible of the Trump presidency: being forced to chose between political expediency and duty.
For Atkinson, duty came naturally. Fulfilling it was the challenge.
The son of a salesman and librarian, Atkinson has thick brown hair and playful blue eyes that make him seem younger than his 56 years. He grew up in the small town of Pulaski, N.Y., on the shore of Lake Ontario.
After graduating from Cornell Law School in 1991, he joined a law firm in Washington and rose to partner. The money was great, but the job less than satisfying. He got more joy representing criminal defendants pro bono.
Motivated to serve after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he followed his heart and joined the Justice Department. In 14 years as a federal prosecutor, Atkinson handled high-profile, high-pressure cases involving politicians, national security matters and big scams. Through it all, he earned a reputation for doggedly pursuing justice.