That alone, though, wasn’t what was worrying the person who is believed to be an administration staffer. The staffer wasn’t privy to Trump’s call with Zelensky directly, according to a CNN report from last week. But Trump’s conversation with Zelensky fit with other actions that the staffer had observed. It was part of a pattern, in other words, prompting the staffer to file a whistleblower complaint with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. When the DNI’s office declined to provide the whistleblower’s complaint to congressional committees, the entire incident exploded into public view.
What were the other actions that raised questions? It’s not clear. The whistleblower complaint remains under wraps, apparently part of a concerted effort by the administration to keep details of what is alleged out of sight. We’ve gotten possible glimpses, though. The Post reported on Monday that Trump’s team withheld aid to Ukraine shortly before that call with Zelensky, raising questions about that aid being used as leverage — and about whether that decision from the White House was part of the pattern observed by the whistleblower.
The call itself has been fairly well explored. After the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had mentioned Biden multiple times in the call, Trump admitted that Biden was a subject of the call. Trump also publicly acknowledged withholding the Ukraine aid, defending it first as a step to counter what he described as Ukrainian corruption and then, somewhat contradictorily, as his waiting for Europe to provide more aid first.
Part of the reason Trump has focused on the call is that he apparently sees it as exculpatory. He’s described it as “nice” and “beautiful.” On Tuesday, he even went so far as to announce in a tweet that he had authorized the release of a transcript of the call.
I am currently at the United Nations representing our Country, but have authorized the release tomorrow of the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2019
“You will see,” he added in a follow-up, “it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call.” There was no quid pro quo involved, he said, adding that "[t]his is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”
That is a reference to the investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose final testimony before Congress about his probe occurred the day before Trump’s conversation with Zelensky.
But notice what Trump isn’t releasing: the whistleblower complaint.
That was what the whole fight was about in the first place. By law, intelligence community whistleblower complaints that are determined to be both credible and urgent by the inspector general go to the office of the DNI for comment before being passed to congressional oversight committees. That transfer to Congress didn’t happen. The whistleblower complaint remains solely in the possession of the Trump administration.
By releasing only the transcript or a summary of his call with Zelensky, Trump is providing an incomplete picture of what alarmed the whistleblower — a move that one would be hard pressed to see as unintentional. (Even assuming that, unlike transcripts released by Richard Nixon’s White House, the transcripts are accurate.) In fact, the move has echoes in the recent past, as when Attorney General William P. Barr released a brief summary of Mueller’s report before the public could see a redacted version of the full thing. Barr’s summary helped cement an inaccurate perception of what the report stated, an inaccurate perception that Trump has since used to great effect.
It’s easy to imagine something similar happening again. An insistence that the call is the only important component of the question. The release of a document purporting to exonerate Trump on that important component. A reinvigorated disparagement of the media and his political opponents — all while the more robust assessment of what happened remains in the dark.
One difference? It probably won’t remain in the dark for long. Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) announced that the whistleblower is likely to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, perhaps as early as this week.
We have been informed by the whistleblower’s counsel that their client would like to speak to our committee and has requested guidance from the Acting DNI as to how to do so.— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) September 24, 2019
We‘re in touch with counsel and look forward to the whistleblower’s testimony as soon as this week.
Another difference from the Mueller scenario is the timeline. Revelations about Russian interference and contacts with Trump’s campaign that made up the bulk of Mueller’s report had been widely reported well in advance of the release of the report itself. In this case, the revelations are unfolding very quickly, making it harder for Trump and his allies to figure out how best to explain them away (something we saw with his explanations for the withholding of aid).
For obvious reasons, Trump wants to put this behind him. He wants this to join the Mueller probe and other questions about his presidency in the rearview mirror, where they can be pointed at as failed efforts by his opponents to take him down. Releasing some form of transcript of the call is an effort to do just that.
If Trump wanted to actually answer the outstanding questions, though, he’d release the whistleblower complaint. That the complaint is still closely held is perhaps more illuminating than the release of the transcript will be.