The President, The Whistleblower, And Ukraine
The latest allegations about exactly what the President may have been trying to do in a phone call with a foreign leader that caught the attention of a whistleblower are becoming more serious by the day.
The mystery and innuendo surrounding a whistleblower complaint from inside the intelligence community and the refusal of the White House, the Justice Department, and the Acting Director of National Intelligence to make that complaint available to the House or Senate Intelligence communities continues to grow. Yesterday, the Inspector General for the intelligence community, who first reported the complaint to the DNI appeared behind closed doors and while we don’t know exactly what he testified to, we do know that he was unable to discuss the contents of the complaint or the identity of the whistleblower based on instructions from the Justice Department and the White House. Despite that, though, some details about what appears to be going on are leaking out, and they’re only leading to more questions and mounting pressure on the Administration from Congress.
First of all The New York Times reports that the complaint involves a conversation between the President and a foreign leader, that it involves the President promising to do something in exchange for unspecified action on the part of the foreign leader, and that it at least appears to in part to involve Ukraine:
WASHINGTON — A potentially explosive complaint by a whistle-blower in the intelligence community said to involve President Trump emerged on Thursday as the latest front in a continuing oversight dispute between administration officials and House Democrats.
While the allegation remains shrouded in mystery, it involves at least one instance of Mr. Trump making an unspecified commitment to a foreign leader and includes other actions, according to interviews. At least part of the allegation deals with Ukraine, two people familiar with it said.
The complaint, submitted by a member of the intelligence community to its inspector general, renewed questions about how the president handles delicate matters. Mr. Trump defended his actions, and allies described his style with foreign leaders as more freewheeling than typical high-level diplomacy. “I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.
Though it is not clear how Ukraine fits into the allegation, questions have already emerged about Mr. Trump’s dealings with its government. In late July, he told the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, that Ukraine could improve its reputation and its “interaction” with the United States by investigating corruption, according to a Ukrainian government summary of the call. Some of Mr. Trump’s close allies were also urging the Ukrainian government to investigate matters that could hurt the president’s political rivals, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family.
As previous reporting has indicated, while the whistleblower’s complaint had been received by the Inspector General several weeks ago, the current controversy began earlier this week when the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee revealed that such a complaint had been made and also stated that the Acting Director of National Intelligence had declined to share a copy with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees as required by law. This apparently happened due to the fact that the Acting DNI, Joseph McGuire, had been instructed not to share the complaint with the Justice Department and White House. This quite obviously set off clashes between the relevant committees and the Administration and led, in part, to yesterday’s hearing featuring the intelligence community’s Inspector General.
According to reports yesterday, the President had conversations with five foreign leaders during the time period at issue in the complaint. These include Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, and the leaders of two unnamed allied countries. The apparent alarm of the whistleblower would appear to rule out the allies, so that leaves the leaders of Russia, China, and Ukraine.
A subsequent report in The Washington Post confirms that the conversation in question involved Ukraine, which has led to speculation that it may be related to recent efforts by people close to the President and Fox News Channel to tie one of the President’s potential Democratic opponents to an alleged scandal involving that nation:
A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.
The complaint involved communications with a foreign leader and a “promise” that Trump made, which was so alarming that a U.S. intelligence official who had worked at the White House went to the inspector general of the intelligence community, two former U.S. officials said.
Two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and political newcomer who was elected in a landslide in May.
That call is already under investigation by House Democrats who are examining whether Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani sought to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping Trump’s reelection campaign. Lawmakers have demanded a full transcript and a list of participants on the call.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
The Democrats’ investigation was launched earlier this month, before revelations that an intelligence official had lodged a complaint with the inspector general. The Washington Post first reported on Wednesday that the complaint had to do with a “promise” that Trump made when communicating with a foreign leader.
On Thursday, the inspector general testified behind closed doors to members of the House Intelligence Committee about the whistleblower’s complaint.
Over the course of three hours, Michael Atkinson repeatedly declined to discuss with members the content of the complaint, saying he was not authorized to do so.
He and the members spent much of their time discussing the process Atkinson followed, the statute governing his investigation of the complaint and the nature of an “urgent concern” that he believed it represented, according to a person familiar with the briefing, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“He was being excruciatingly careful about the language he used,” the person said.
Atkinson made clear that he disagreed with a lawyer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who had contradicted the inspector general and found that the whistleblower complaint did not meet the statutory definition of an urgent concern because it involved a matter not under the DNI’s jurisdiction.
Atkinson told lawmakers that he disagreed with that analysis — meaning he felt the matter was under the DNI’s purview — and also that it was urgent “in the common understanding of the word,” the person said.
Atkinson told the committee that the complaint did not stem from just one conversation, according to two people familiar with his testimony.
Following the meeting, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the committee, warned of legal action if intelligence officials did not share the whistleblower complaint.
Schiff described acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire’s refusal to share the complaint with Congress as “unprecedented” and said he understood the Justice Department was involved in that decision.
“We cannot get an answer to the question about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress,” Schiff said, adding: “We’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is to make sure that the national security is protected.”
Someone, Schiff said, “is trying to manipulate the system to keep information about an urgent matter from the Congress … There certainly are a lot of indications that it was someone at a higher pay grade than the director of national intelligence.”
There aren’t many people of a higher pay grade than the Director of National Intelligence, who reports directly to the President and/or the Acting White House Chief of Staff, so the number of people who could be involved in making this call is small to say the least. This is one of the reasons that the speculation that the pressure to keep the whistleblower report secret rather than turn it over to Congress as the law requires directly involves the President.
As for the substance of the call, as the Post notes it may be related to efforts by supporters of President Trump to get the Ukranian government to investigate a matter involving Hunter Biden, the youngest son of former Vice-President Joe Biden, and Hunter’s involvement with an alleged scandal tied to the Ukranian government:
In letters to the White House and State Department, top Democrats earlier this month demanded records related to what they say are Trump and Giuliani’s efforts “to coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity” — one to help Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is in prison for illegal lobbying and financial fraud, and a second to target the son of former vice president Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump.
“As the 2020 election draws closer, President Trump and his personal attorney appear to have increased pressure on the Ukrainian government and its justice system in service of President Trump’s reelection campaign, and the White House and the State Department may be abetting this scheme,” the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees wrote, citing media reports that Trump had threatened to withhold $250 million in aid to help Ukraine in its ongoing struggle against Russian-backed separatists.
Lawmakers also became aware in August that the Trump administration may be trying to stop the aid from reaching Ukraine, according to a congressional official.
Giuliani dismissed the reports of the whistle blower and Trump’s “promise” to a foreign leader.
“I’m not even aware of the fact that he had such a phone call,” Giuliani said Thursday. “If I’m not worried about it, he’s not worried about it.
Finally, just last night in an appearance on CNN, Giuliani admitted that he had lobbied the Ukrainian government to open an investigation:
Rudy Giuliani acknowledged on Thursday that he had asked top Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, an admission that comes as Capitol Hill Democrats investigate whether President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer are pressuring Ukraine’s government to dig up dirt on a 2020 election rival.
“So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?” CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Giuliani in an interview on Thursday evening.
“Of course I did,” Giuliani shot back.
His comments come amid House Democrats’ intensifying look at allegations that Giuliani and Trump were squeezing Ukraine’s recently elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to reopen an investigation of a company connected to Biden’s son. The chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees wrote to White House counsel Pat Cipollone last week demanding all documents that reference the allegations against Biden’s son, as well as the transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky.
A Ukrainian readout of the call indicates that Trump indicated Ukraine could improve its image in part by completing the “investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”
Giuliani has for months encouraged Ukrainians to advance investigations into whether Biden’s diplomatic work with Ukraine intersected with his son’s role in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch. He has also sought an investigation into whether Ukrainian officials worked to harm Trump’s 2016 election bid.
“In the course of investigating that, I found out this incredible story about Joe Biden, that he bribed the president of the Ukraine in order to fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son,” Giuliani said on CNN on Thursday. “That is an astounding scandal of major proportions which all of you have covered up for about five or six months.”
Democrats have noted that within days of Trump’s call to Zelensky, Giuliani met one of the Ukrainian president’s aides in Spain, a meeting that the State Department later said had been facilitated by the American ambassador to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. Around the same time, POLITICO reported that Trump held up a $250 million package of military aid to Ukraine, meant to shore up the country’s defenses against neighboring Russia.
“If the President is trying to pressure Ukraine into choosing between defending itself from Russian aggression without U.S. assistance or leveraging its judicial system to serve the ends of the Trump campaign, this would represent a staggering abuse of power, a boon to Moscow, and a betrayal of the public trust,” the three committee chairmen, Reps. Adam Schiff, Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel, wrote.
After Giuliani’s interview, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) recounted a recent meeting with Zelensky in which he characterized the Ukrainian leader as very attuned to Giuliani’s demands and Trump’s handling of Ukraine’s military aid.
“I told him it was best to ignore requests from Trump’s campaign operatives. He agreed,” Murphy said on Twitter
Here’s the full video of Giuliani on CNN last night:
And here’s the relevant part of the interview where Cuomo got Giuliani to admit that he was pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden:
While we cannot know for sure without actually seeing the whistleblower’s complaint, speculation at the moment revolves around some fairly serious charges Specifically, it’s being alleged that Trump may have agreed to release arms sales to Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine opening an investigation into the Hunter Biden affair and any possible connection to the former Vice-President. If that’s true then it’s a fairly serious allegation that basically would involve the President of the United States using his position to get a foreign nation to investigate a political rival. This is purely speculation at this point, of course, but it appears to be the only logical explanation for why a conversation with the leader of Ukraine would have aroused serious concern for the whistleblower, the Inspector General, and the Director of National Intelligence, and it would explain why the White House would want to keep the matter secret.