“I think it's a scandal that [Schiff] knew before,” Trump said. Without offering any evidence, Trump accused Schiff of helping to write the whistleblower complaint and then declared the Times report to be a “big story."
Schiff, as head of the House committee that oversees the intelligence community, has been a frequent target of Trump’s ire during the political fight over his Ukraine call. His supporters were therefore quick to imply wrongdoing, with Republican Party Chair Ronna McDaniel declaring on Twitter that the Times article was “a stunning indictment of this impeachment charade.”
Given the alacrity with which Trump’s team has seized upon the report, it’s worth understanding what it says.
The whistleblower complaint centers on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the call, a rough transcript of which was released by the White House last week, Trump explicitly asks Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in relation to Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy company.
The whistleblower learned of the contents of the call (quite accurately) from administration staffers and, concerned about how it overlapped with other efforts to influence Ukraine, decided to bring the matter to the attention of oversight officials.
This is where things get complicated. We’ve been aware for some time that the whistleblower filed a complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who then assessed it as credible and urgent before bringing it to the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire.
The Times report indicates that the whistleblower contacted a staffer for the House Intelligence Committee first, days before the complaint was written. (It is dated Aug. 12.)
“The House staff member, following the committee’s procedures, suggested the officer find a lawyer to advise him and file a whistle-blower complaint,” the Times’s Julian Barnes, Michael Schmidt and Matthew Rosenberg report. “The aide shared some of what the officer conveyed to Mr. Schiff. The aide did not share the whistle-blower’s identity with Mr. Schiff, an official said.”
A spokesman for Schiff told the Times that Schiff never saw the eventual complaint and didn't know what precisely the complaint would contain.
What’s important to recognize, though, is that this report overlaps with another Times report from last week. Then, the paper reported outreach by the whistleblower that predates the contact with the intelligence committee staffer: The whistleblower first anonymously contacted the top lawyer in the CIA. It was only after the whistleblower became “concerned about how that initial avenue for airing his allegations through the CIA was unfolding,” the Times writes, that the person contacted committee staffers.
It’s worth noting that the Times’s report on the outreach to the CIA attorney indicates that the attorney then shared those concerns (in vague terms) with the White House and the Justice Department. That information was conveyed “around the same time” as the filing of the complaint — Aug. 12.
In the abstract, these multiple points of contact between government officials and the whistleblower may seem sketchy. As national security lawyer Bradley Moss pointed out on Twitter, though, the publicly available intelligence community whistleblower guidelines allow for disclosures of “urgent concern” to “your agency’s Inspector General (IG), the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community (IC IG), or congressional intelligence committees.” The suggestion from the Times report is that the outreach to Schiff was, in fact, outreach to Schiff’s committee — the House Intelligence Committee.
A journalist for CBS News, speaking to the ranking Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, reported that the process described in the Times article would be “standard practice” for a complaint to a committee. In other words, this is not quite the smoking gun that Trump presented during the media availability.
That didn’t stop House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from seizing on Trump’s presentation of what happened (after stumbling badly in trying to defend Trump over the weekend).
The Times's Rosenberg was ready with a clarification.
Nope. Not what the NYT reported. The whistleblower went to an intel committee staffer with a vague account of the complaint, and was told to file through proper channels. Schiff personally never knew the whistleblower’s identity. That’s hardly “orchestrating” the complaint— Matthew Rosenberg (@AllMattNYT) October 2, 2019
Given Trump’s shorthand presentation of the story and the complexity of what the Times reported, expect a lot more similar pushback over the next few days. What’s more, it’s hard to see how even Trump’s presentation changes the implications of the rough transcript of the call that the White House itself released.