Washington’s newest scandal, over a whistleblower’s complaint about President Donald Trump, intensified Thursday amid revelations that the White House and Justice Department tried to keep it quiet.
The affair, centering on Trump’s contacts with a leader of a mystery foreign nation – identified in two reports as Ukraine – has also injected a toxic element into relations among the President, the intelligence community and Congress.
It is hard to see how any of this ends well.
Six months after special counsel Robert Mueller shut up shop, the White House again faces suspicion over Trump’s dealings with a foreign power and seems to be taking steps to stop the full story from coming out.
Democrats are rummaging for new skeletons in Trump’s closet and yet another showdown is developing between the executive and Congress that appears almost certain to play out in the courts.
The details of the controversy unleashed when a whistleblower sounded the alarm about the President are complex, disputed according to political allegiance and largely not public.
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported Thursday that the contacts at issue between Trump and the foreign leader involve Ukraine. In the past, some of Trump’s supporters, including his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have urged the Kiev government to open investigations that the President could use to raise suspicions about his political rivals, including Joe Biden. In a heated exchange with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Thursday night, Giuliani denied asking Ukraine to investigate the former vice president, before admitting he had done just that.
The US and Ukraine were in discussions about $250 million in military aid to Kiev this summer that had been delayed by the White House. Giuliani said he didn’t know anything about the package, but that if Trump had used it as leverage to benefit himself politically in any way he would not have done anything wrong.
“The reality is that the President of the United States, whoever he is, has every right to tell the president of another country you better straighten out the corruption in your country if you want me to give you a lot of money. If you’re so damn corrupt that you can’t investigate allegations – our money is going to get squandered,” Giuliani said.
More from Stephen Collinson
Trump attempted to discredit the whistleblower as “highly partisan” in a series of tweets Friday morning, echoing remarks made by Giuliani on Thursday night. The President said his comments to “a certain foreign leader” were “pitch perfect.”
Trump tweeted: “Strange that with so many other people hearing or knowing of the perfectly fine and respectful conversation, that they would not have also come forward. Do you know the reason why they did not? Because there was nothing said wrong, it was pitch perfect!”
Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25. There is so far no public evidence that the whistleblower’s complaint pertains to this conversation or that there was any abuse of power by Trump. The White House later lifted the hold on aid.
But the potential ramifications of this new storm are already becoming clear and the risks facing the President, the intelligence community and Democrats in Congress are climbing by the day.
There must at least be a possibility that Trump abused his power or committed a grievous ethical lapse in dealing with the foreign leader.
His defense was not exactly reassuring, considering some of the wild comments the President has made in the company of rogue counterparts such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call?” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
CNN reported Thursday that the intelligence community inspector general suggested to the House Intelligence Committee that the complaint raised concerns about multiple actions.
He would not say whether those instances involved Trump, sources familiar with the closed-door briefing told CNN.
The inspector general, Michael Atkinson, was legally unable to discuss the complaint itself, since Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has declined to hand it over.
Democrats say he is compelled to provide the complaint under whistleblower legislation, and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said his committee may take legal action if it isn’t turned over.
The Washington Post on Wednesday said the complaint referenced a “promise” Trump allegedly made to the unidentified leader. CNN has not confirmed that aspect of the controversy.
The whistleblower didn’t have direct knowledge of the communications, an official briefed on the matter told CNN. Instead, the whistleblower’s concerns came in part from learning information that was not obtained during the course of their work, and those details have played a role in the administration’s determination that the complaint didn’t fit the reporting requirements under the intelligence whistleblower law, the official said.
It is hard to know the potential exposure faced by the President.
But given the sensitivity of the issue, the complaint is likely to have come from an official familiar with the scope of presidential power. And it was signed off as “urgent and credible” by the inspector general – a Trump appointee – who thought Congress should know in line with whistleblowing laws.
The implication of such a fact pattern is staggering and opens up the potential of serious misconduct inside the White House – despite Trump’s denials of any wrongdoing.
A President maligned?
If, on the other hand, the alleged behavior by the President does not reach such a bar, the political fallout will be considerable. Trump, acting within his wide Article Two constitutional powers, may have been maligned and there will be accusations that the whistleblower – though moving within the scope of the law – will have overreached.
The President’s suspicion of the intelligence community, which he sees as a “Deep State” bent on overthrowing him, will grow.
If a president cannot trust his own spies, and thinks they are working against him and not the country’s enemies, then America’s national security will be harmed.
The President’s allies are already arguing that the controversy is simply another ruse by House Democrats to damage Trump.
“He has very wide authority, really unchecked authority, to talk to world leaders about anything he deems appropriate as he is representing the United States of America,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.”If this were able to go forward, any staffer in an agency could constantly hobble a Democratic President, duly elected.”
“This is an unconstitutional argument,” Schlapp said on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”
Of course, the White House could clear all this up by explaining the contents of the alleged contacts between the President and the foreign leader. But it is taking the opposite tack.
According to three CNN sources, the White House and the Justice Department advised the director of national intelligence that the complaint isn’t governed by laws covering intelligence whistleblowers.
The revelation is the first known evidence of the White House’s involvement in the standoff. There may be an argument that the content of the President’s communications or an official’s impressions of them sent to Congress are subject to executive privilege.
But the administration’s resistance to scrutiny is already fueling suspicions of a cover-up.
And it throws new light on the role of Attorney General William Barr – who has been accused by critics of shaping special counsel Robert Mueller’s damning revelations to the President’s advantage.
Barr, who served in the same role for President George H.W. Bush, advocates a theory of expansive presidential power, one reason why he has become perhaps Trump’s favorite Cabinet member.
House Democrats argue that the White House is yet again adopting a model of presidential power that threatens to tear the checks and balances of the US system to shreds.
Schiff effectively argued that the approach taken by the administration could lead to the quashing of whistleblower claims in the government.
That could lead down a road of power without accountability and in theory impunity for any presidential wrongdoing.
“The impact of this opinion is that if the Department of Justice decides that any employee of the intelligence committee comes forward, follows the law, follows the process, is nonetheless outside the process, they’re not protected,” the California Democrat said.
“Which not only means this whistleblower is not protected, it means no whistleblower is protected. That is the danger of the DOJ’s misinterpretation of the law.”
The fresh confrontation between the White House and the Congress is certain to fuel the frustration of Democrats at the White House’s efforts to evade scrutiny.
And it will add momentum to claims of many grass roots liberals and a growing corps of House Democrats who do not share House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to proceed with impeachment.
CNN’s Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Kevin Liptak and Manu Raju contributed to this report.