So why wouldn’t Trump try something very similar a second time around?
The emerging contours of this story contain eerie echoes of what we’ve already been through.
The Post reports that the whistleblower’s complaint — which top officials are refusing to forward to Congress, in apparent violation of the law — involves a “promise” Trump made to a foreign official, and apparently concerns Ukraine.
Given that Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have already gone to great lengths to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation that would damage Joe Biden, the most likely general-election opponent of Trump, speculation has naturally centered on the idea that the whistleblower complaint might concern this effort.
Giuliani appeared on CNN on Thursday night, where he denied that he is pressuring Ukraine to do this, before reversing and confirming as much. He then made the strange decision to vaguely suggest on Twitter that if Trump did this, there would be nothing wrong with it.
That’s morbidly amusing. But here’s the darker side to all of it.
Trump just lashed out on Twitter against Rep. Adam Schiff, ridiculing him for trying to determine the facts of the whistleblower’s complaint, and scoffing at the idea that there was anything wrong with his conversation with the foreign leader.
In so doing, Trump brashly flaunted his ability to act with total impunity. That’s because the effort by Trump’s Justice Department and Director of National Intelligence to keep the whistleblower’s complaint buried makes it impossible for Congress to actually evaluate whether there was anything wrong with the conversation or not.
Convenient, isn’t it?
Trump is openly advertising his contempt for the very notion that Congress might want to carry out its role in holding the executive accountable — secure in the knowledge that his top officials will corruptly keep all the facts of the situation away from Congress, making actual evaluation of his conduct impossible. In sum, Trump is basically giving our political system the middle finger.
The Ukrainian connection
The reporting is vague on how this matter involves Ukraine. But we already know three House committees are investigating what appear to be extensive efforts by Trump and Giuliani to pressure the Ukrainian government into launching investigations designed to dig up dirt on Biden.
The ostensible reason for those efforts is a complicated allegation that Biden improperly pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was looking into a company on whose board Biden’s son sat.
This is a pile of nonsense — see this takedown from Salvador Rizzo. In fact, there were extensive efforts by many parties to oust the prosecutor for other reasons, and the current prosecutor has said neither Biden did anything wrong.
As Viola Gienger put it in a must-read explainer: “With the drama over assistance to Ukraine unfolding alongside Trump’s and Giuliani’s months-long drumbeat for an investigation into Biden’s role there, the clear impression is that the United States is extorting a partner country for political gain.”
Giuliani helpfully tweeted this:
A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job. Maybe if Obama did that the Biden Family wouldn’t have bilked millions from Ukraine and billions from China; being covered up by a Corrupt Media.— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) September 20, 2019
Trump, of course, denies there was anything wrong with the call. Perhaps we’ll soon learn that there’s nothing untoward going on here.
Oh wait, perhaps we won’t. Because Trump administration officials are not letting Congress learn the complaint’s details.
Inspector general pushes back
As of now, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is still refusing to forward the whistleblower’s complaint to the congressional intelligence committees, even though the inspector general deemed it an “urgent concern” and “credible,” triggering a statutory requirement that he do so.
The Justice Department has advised Maguire not to follow this directive, asserting that the matter falls outside the parameters of the statute, because the subject of the complaint supposedly doesn’t concern activity within the DNI’s purview.
But the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, has now sharply disputed this, claiming that the complaint “relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people."
We’re also learning that the Justice Department — run by that same handpicked attorney general, William Barr — has given details of the whistleblower complaint to the White House, so lawyers can decide whether to exert executive privilege to keep it from Congress.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the White House has exerted presidential prerogative to an extraordinary degree to prevent Congress from talking to witnesses to some of Trump’s worst corruption and wrongdoing, as documented in the special counsel’s report.
Schiff has talked about going to court. But there’s a provision in the statute that suggests such DNI actions might not be subject to judicial review at all.
We don’t know that an effort to get Ukraine to dig dirt on Biden is the subject of the whistleblower complaint. But we do have clear indications that Trump and Giuliani are, in fact, trying to get Ukraine to do this.
And that’s the through line here: Just as Trump and his advisers went to great lengths to benefit from a foreign power’s interference in our election and got away with it, it’s perfectly plausible that Trump is trying to do the same thing again.
Worse, if this is the subject of the whistleblower complaint, Congress may never learn about it — because Trump may be able to count on his top law enforcement officials to keep it buried. And Trump is rubbing our faces in all of it.