The Post reports that the whistleblower who submitted a complaint to the intelligence community’s inspector general did so after growing alarmed by a call Trump held with an unspecified foreign leader. Former officials tell The Post that the whistleblower was particularly troubled by some sort of “promise” Trump made to that leader.
This new reporting also sheds light on how this process has been deeply perverted to prevent the facts of this situation from reaching Congress.
To quickly recap, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire failed to transmit the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress’ intelligence committees, even though the DNI inspector general deemed it “credible” and of “urgent concern,” triggering a statutory requirement that he do so. Maguire has continued to refuse, citing specious legal reasoning.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has raised the alarm about this, and the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, is scheduled to testify to the committee Thursday in closed-door session. Maguire might testify next week.
The Post report further demonstrates how this all happened.
The process is getting perverted
As The Post reports, Maguire declined to forward the complaint to Congress after consulting with the Justice Department for legal guidance. Maguire supposedly believes he faces a real legal predicament — the details of the complaint are outside his jurisdiction. In one letter to Schiff, Maguire had already justified withholding it by claiming it involves “potentially privileged communications by persons outside the intelligence community.”
We now know that one of these “persons” is likely Trump himself. So the Justice Department apparently advised Maguire not to forward the complaint to Congress, likely on this basis.
The statute defines an “urgent concern” as a “serious” abuse or violation of the law “relating” to the “operation of an intelligence activity” within the DNI’s “responsibility or authority.” If the inspector general deems the complaint about such a matter “credible,” the DNI “shall” forward it to Congress.
But the DNI — apparently at the Justice Department’s urging — is claiming that the event in question fell outside this statutory language. What to make of this argument?
A deeply strained argument
Ned Price, a national security adviser to former president Barack Obama, told me that the key here might lie in the statute’s use of the word “relating.” If Trump’s phone call to a foreign leader related to intelligence activity within the DNI’s responsibility — that is, if the call implicated that activity — that might be grounds for a whistleblower complaint that fell squarely within the statute’s parameters.
“The word relating gives a lot of wiggle room,” Price said. “It has to be an issue relating to the intelligence community,” in which a “reasonable person” would see a “direct connection to the intelligence community.”
For instance, Price noted hypothetically, if Trump made a promise to Russian president Vladimir Putin or North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — two leaders with whom Trump communicated over the summer — that compromised or seriously strained ongoing intelligence operations, that would clearly “relate” to ongoing intelligence activity.
Such a matter, then, would have to be passed on to Congress by law, Price noted. And the claim that it doesn’t fall within the statute because it involves activity committed by someone outside the intelligence community — i.e., Trump — would be particularly strained.
This would be even more glaring if it involved Trump making a promise that didn’t have any discernible connection to the national interest, and appeared to be more in the interests of the foreign power in question — or even in his own direct interests. Obviously, given all we’ve seen, these seem perfectly plausible.
In such a scenario, if the Justice Department is advising the DNI to break the law to prevent the details from being shared with Congress, that perverts the process and enables Trump’s corruption. And let’s not forget that the inspector general looked at these details and concluded the report of Trump’s call did fall within the statute’s parameters.
It’s possible that the Justice Department and the DNI inspector general have a legitimate, good-faith disagreement about this matter. But the Justice Department’s position, conveniently, makes it impossible for congressional oversight to shed light on this dispute or the details of the complaint one way or the other, since it keeps those details from Congress. Given what we’ve seen from the Justice Department thus far, we shouldn’t give it the benefit of the doubt.
One complication is that presidents should have the power to keep some private communications with other world leaders from Congress, for good reasons. But as Asha Rangappa outlines in this thread, this power should not be unlimited.
And what we’ve seen repeatedly is that Trump is abusing such powers, notably for reasons that don’t appear driven by any conception of what’s in the national interest.
Trump isn’t operating in the country’s interests
Given the current context — a call with a foreign leader aroused alarm in a whistleblower, and the DNI’s inspector general agreed that his complaint is legitimate — all that looks even worse in retrospect. We’re seeing the bulldozing of multiple guardrails all at once. And looming behind it all is the overarching factor that Trump just doesn’t seem to be operating in the country’s interests.