The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What we need to know about the whistleblower

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 24. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The Post’s bombshell report regarding a whistleblower’s claim that is being withheld from Congress explains:

The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
... Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson determined that the complaint was credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of “urgent concern,” a legal threshold that requires notification of congressional oversight committees.

To be clear, we have both an unnamed whistleblower and Trump-appointed Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson who have identified something alarming and “urgent.” Trump’s acting director of national intelligence — someone not confirmed by the Senate for this post — is preventing the complaint from going to Congress as mandated by law, apparently upon recommendation of Attorney General William P. Barr’s Justice Department.

Since both the whistleblower and Atkinson, not to mention whoever reviewed this at the Justice Department, know what this complaint is about, the chances of it remaining secret are quite low. Given that the urgent whistleblower claim concerns Trump promising something to a foreign leader, one would hope for some modicum of bipartisanship on the House Intelligence Committee. But let’s not kid ourselves: Republicans have done nothing but run interference for this president. and a nefarious promise to a foreign leader implicating national security is not, sadly, going to outweigh their partisan loyalty to the president, no matter what he has done or said.

We are facing two crises, both arguably more serious than any of the zillion scandals and misdeeds we have seen from this administration.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

First, we may have a president who is engaged in illegal or impeachable conduct (again). The president has wide latitude in foreign policy, but he cannot promise to accept something (say, help from a foreign power in his reelection campaign) in exchange for his favorable treatment of that power. That would, essentially, be a bribe as well as the clearest violation of the president’s oath of office to date. He can legally declassify whatever he likes, but his judgment might be so misguided and so illogical as to raise a 25th Amendment and/or impeachment concern.

Second, the acting DNI and someone at Justice Department (presumably Barr would know of this) are deliberately concealing an urgent whistleblower complaint from Congress in violation of the law. This is quintessential obstruction of justice. The constitutional system of checks and balances and the rule of law break down entirely if one branch can thwart another and violate the law.

We therefore need to know what the promise was but also:

  • Why did the DNI go to the Justice Department instead of Congress?
  • Did the DNI contact the White House? Did the Justice Department?
  • Was anyone else privy to the conversation/promise before the whistleblower claim?
  • Has anyone threatened the whistleblower?

The only silver lining here is that there is a Democratic majority in the House. Otherwise, I am quite certain we would know nothing of this. And that’s a true crisis in our democratic system.

The moment screams out for someone — DNI, IG, a Justice Department lawyer — to stop protecting a president engaged in alarming conduct and start protecting the country. Former FBI official Frank Figliuzzi says: “It’s time for this whistleblower to go directly to the intelligence committees. It’s become clear that the Trump administration is hellbent on concealing the truth. That truth is they have pledged allegiance to Trump, not to our Constitution. People like AG Barr and Acting DNI Maguire will go down in history as aiding and abetting the demise of our democracy.”

There is a legal, constitutional and a moral imperative to act swiftly. The moment demands that the whistleblower, after being thwarted, inform the IG he is going to Congress directly, and then to do so. And, for God’s sake, the moment demands that the Republican lackeys decide whether they are patriots and finally, finally, act in defense of the country instead of an unfit and disloyal president.

UPDATE: Ian Bassin, who served as an associate counsel in the Obama White House and is now head of the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy, tells me: “Our system of checks and balances depends on officials abiding by their oaths and the rules that have been established. This episode shows how vulnerable these all are to the threat of an autocrat in the White House: from Trump using ‘acting’ appointees to circumvent the Constitution’s appointments clause, to the acting ODNI showing more loyalty to Trump than his oath, to the Justice Department twisting the law to satisfy a corrupt president, the system is straining under Trump’s weight.” He adds: "Congress must vigorously enforce its authority here, the press should be unsparing in covering the GOP’s acquiescence to this lawlessness, and voters should know that, at the end of the day, we are ultimately the final backstop to protect our constitutional system. We must vote.”

Whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg take personal risks to expose wrongdoing. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Greg Sargent: As the whistleblower story gets worse for Trump, his corruption keeps spreading

Greg Sargent: Mystery of Adam Schiff and whistleblower takes dangerous new turn

Harry Litman: A whistleblower filed a complaint to the intelligence IG. Why is it being withheld from Congress?

The Post’s View: The Trump administration cannot withhold a whistleblower complaint from Congress