Friday night, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff made a strange-sounding announcement. Schiff said that Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was illegally withholding a whistle-blower’s complaint from Congress. Schiff implied, but did not come out and say, that the complaint implicated President Trump.
In the days since, more details have trickled out, and last night the Washington Post added an explosive new detail: The complaint is about President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader. Specifically, “Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a ‘promise’ that was regarded as so troubling” that a member of the Intelligence Community filed the complaint. NBC has confirmed this. The New York Times elaborates that the complaint was not limited to the offer made in a single call, but also includes “multiple acts” by the President.
There are two main elements to this story. There’s the crime (Trump made a shady promise to a foreign leader) and there’s the cover-up (somebody found out about it, tried to alert Congress, but is being blocked by the director of National Intelligence).
Begin with the crime. The Post does not say which foreign leader was the recipient of Trump’s extraordinary and troubling offer. The lead suspect is obviously Vladimir Putin. In fact, he and Trump were reported to have had a phone call on July 31, less than two weeks before the whistle-blower filed the complaint. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing this way. The call was publicly described as a discussion of “wildfires in Siberia and trade,” and according to the Kremlin, “the U.S. president offered Russia cooperation in fighting forest fires in Siberia.”
Why would Trump call Putin about wildfires in Siberia? What help could he offer? Stranger things have happened, but even at the time, this explanation sounded odd. Trump has previously given sensitive intelligence to the Russians and taken extraordinary steps to conceal his conversations with Putin from American officials. What’s more, the House is still investigating Trump and Russia, and Schiff says the director of National Intelligence is not able to verify that the complaint is unrelated to current investigations.
Still, it’s far from clear that Putin is the counterparty to Trump’s offer. The president has had some corrupt or downright weird dealings with plenty of foreign leaders. Trump is personally getting paid by the Gulf kingdoms (how much we don’t know). He has publicly stated that he wouldn’t spy on North Korea, a dangerous adversary about which the U.S. desperately needs to collect intelligence. The possibilities for what this offer concerned are truly endless.
[Update] The Washington Post reports that the call “centers on Ukraine.” Trump for months has been pressuring Ukraine to supply dirt on Joe Biden, even though the country’s prosecutors have concluded they have no evidence of wrongdoing by him. The Post editorial page recently reported that Trump is holding up aide and a presidential visit as leverage to compel Ukraine’s cooperation. The Post’s latest report does not say that the call was with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, only that it “centers on” Ukraine. The Times confirms the report, noting, “At least part of the allegation deals with Ukraine,” but does not say which world leader was on the call.
What we know from the reporting so far is that the underlying matter is quite serious. Michael Atkinson, the Intelligence Community’s inspector general, determined that the complaint was a matter of “urgent concern.” (Atkinson is a Trump appointee.) This should have automatically invoked a legal requirement that Congress be notified. Instead, the director of National Intelligence has sat on it.
What happens next? The inspector general testified in a closed session of the House today. According to the New York Times, Atkinson refused to share any pertinent information with Congress in the hearing. And the acting director of National Intelligence testifies in public next Thursday.
The historic pattern is that Trump fights every assertion of congressional prerogative, however unambiguous. It also seems predictable that, however blatant the violation may be, Republicans will find ways to justify it: He was joking. The president has the right to make any offers he wants. What about some of the bad things Fox News says Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama did?
So in short order this story is likely to become another bare partisan fight. How this plays out remains to be seen. Will the director of National Intelligence go along with Trump indefinitely, or follow the law? If it goes to court, will judges speed along the resolution, or let Trump drag it out past the election? And if the cover-up holds, will the allegation wind up leaking?
Trump responds to the new reporting, combining his customary dismissal of “fake news” with a novel insistence that of course he would never make shady deals over the phone, because he knows the Feds might be listening:
So since there’s nothing incriminating on the call, Trump should authorize the release of the report to Congress and clear his good name, right? Yeah, that’s probably what will happen.
Of course, Trump’s claim that he would never “say something inappropriate with a foreign leader” on the phone is easy to refute. On a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president, Trump “allegedly told the Ukrainian president to reopen the Biden investigation if he wanted to improve relations with the US.”
Telling a foreign leader to rough up your domestic opponent in exchange for good diplomatic relations is incredibly improper. Even Rudy Giuliani admitted it was improper. “There’s nothing illegal about it,” he told the Times in May. “Somebody could say it’s improper.” We know Trump would say something improper to a foreign leader on the phone. Either he is dumb, or he’s smart enough to understand his party will back him up regardless.
This post has been updated throughout.