Donald Trump has raised eyebrows with US intelligence officials – again.
Admittedly, we hesitated to run with this story when the Washington Post initially reported, on Wednesday evening, that a whistle-blower complaint filed with the inspector general for the intelligence community related to a “promise” Trump made to a foreign leader.
It’s not that this isn’t a serious issue. In fact, the idea that the acting director of national intelligence is stonewalling Congress on the details of a complaint that intelligence community IG Michael Atkinson decided to deem an “urgent concern” is highly… well… concerning.
Sadly, though, it isn’t surprising.
The notion that Donald Trump discussed a quid pro quo with a foreign leader over the phone sounds so much like something Donald Trump would do, that the real story would be if he had a phone call with a foreign leader that didn’t include a quid pro quo.
Understandably, House intelligence chair Adam Schiff is furious at what he sees as yet another instance of obstruction on the part of the White House. Acting DNI Joseph Maguire, meanwhile, is in an impossible position.
“The dispute has put Maguire, thrust into the DNI job in an acting capacity with the resignation of Dan Coats last month, at the center of a politically perilous conflict with constitutional implications”, WaPo wrote, adding that “Schiff has demanded full disclosure of the whistle-blower complaint [while] Maguire has defended his refusal by asserting that the subject of the complaint is beyond his jurisdiction”.
The complaint was sent to Maguire by Atkinson late last month, starting the clock on a seven-day deadline for the DNI to transmit the information to Congress. Maguire turned to the Justice Department for help, and Atkinson went ahead and informed lawmakers about the situation.
Obviously, this all suggests Trump said something untoward in the course of chatting with a foreign leader and that would only underscore concerns that this president can’t be trusted to always act in the interests of the American people in sensitive situations. But the very fact that these concerns are commonplace made this story seem just as redundant as it was unnerving.
As it turns out, the complaint revolves around Ukraine, according to a pair of people familiar with the matter who apparently spoke to WaPo on Thursday.
On Thursday afternoon, details around a briefing between Atkinson and lawmakers revealed that this isn’t just about a single phone call, or one “promise”, as it were.
“A potentially explosive complaint by a whistle-blower in the intelligence community said to involve President Trump was related to a series of actions that goes beyond any single discussion with a foreign leader”, the New York Times reported, citing interviews and accounts of Atkinson’s closed-door session.
Atkinson reportedly said the complaint “was related to multiple acts”, although he “declined to discuss specifics, including whether the complaint involved the president”. That’s according to interviews with actual committee members.
Two other sources familiar with the compliant say it did, in fact, relate to a “commitment” Trump made to another world leader, but that “no single communication was at the root”.
Disturbingly, Schiff still didn’t know, as of Thursday afternoon, what intelligence officials found so disturbing that it needed to be deemed “urgent”. Here’s what he said following the briefing:
I don’t think this is a problem of the law. I think the law is written very clearly. I think the law is just fine. The problem lies elsewhere. And we’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is, to make sure that the national security is protected and to make sure that this whistle-blower is protected.
There are a number of problems here, not the least of which is that Trump decides what’s classified and what’s not. So, it isn’t clear it makes sense to assert that he shared “classified” information, because on an admittedly naive assessment, as soon as he shares it, it’s no longer classified.
Beyond that, the Times notes that “under the law, the complaint has to concern the existence of an intelligence activity that violates the law, rules or regulations, or otherwise amounts to mismanagement, waste, abuse, or a danger to public safety, but a conversation between two foreign leaders is not itself an intelligence activity”.
All of this just adds to the intrigue, and the Ukraine connection may help to explain why the whistle-blower felt Trump’s conduct constituted some manner of violation.
Earlier this month, Democrats penned letters to the White House and State Department, asking for records tied to purported efforts on Giuliani’s part to “coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity”. One such effort was aimed at assisting Paul Manafort, and the other at investigating Joe Biden’s troubled son Hunter, whose dealings with Burisma are the subject of intense scrutiny.
“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”, House Democrats alleged, a reference to the possibility that the administration is effectively trying to leverage a quarter of a billion dollars in aid to the country in order to secure election assistance.
“The Trump Administration’s decision to withhold vital security assistance to Ukraine is only the latest in a series of actions in which President Trump appears to undermine US foreign policy to placate Russia and place his personal interests above the national interest”, Schiff said, on September 9.
Giuliani showed up on CNN to refute the story and, as is usually the case when he makes a television cameo, he implicated himself and, by extension, Trump.
As you can see, Rudy contradicted himself in rather embarrassing fashion.
For his part, Trump says it’s all fake news. “Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various US agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself”, he said Thursday. “No problem!”