Phone call; whistleblower; transcript; treason. Here is your brief rundown of the week’s events.
So much has happened this past week in U.S. politics that you would be forgiven for not keeping up with the breakneck pace of the news. U.S. President Donald Trump has found himself once again embroiled in scandal and conspiracy and it seems to be the straw that broke the Democratic camel’s back. Impeachment has officially begun. But what happened to get us here?
The Phone Call
On July 25 2019, President Trump took a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was this call which began to raise some eyebrows.
Eyebrows were raised again later when it was found that Trump had personally withheld a scheduled payment of almost $400 million to the Ukraine for aid. It is speculated that the temporary withholding of the money was used in an attempt to pressure the Ukrainian President to do a favour for President Trump. That favour being the Ukrainian President launching investigations of corruption into former Vice President and 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden; to which the Ukrainian President declined. But, by allegedly asking for these investigations, President Trump could be guilty of attempting to enlist a foreign agency to tarnish a rival for his own political gain.
It was also later revealed in a whistleblower complaint that the transcript for this phone call was not stored in the usual computer system but instead in a separate system used for classified information. This has sparked accusations of a conspiratorial cover-up by the White House.
Last month a whistleblower complaint was submitted by an unnamed person, reported by The New York Times to be a CIA officer who once worked at the White House, to an inspector general who deemed it “credible” and “urgent”.
The complaint was then passed up to Acting National Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire, who made the decision to consult the White House before releasing the information. When asked why he had chosen this course of action, Maguire responded that “it just seemed prudent to check” if the report contained any information protected by presidential executive privilege.
Mr. Maguire previously refused to release the complaint to congress but has since done so.
The complaint is apparently so damning that in only a few days it has turned Washington upside down and has the White House in a frenzy.
The complaint begins by stating that the whistleblower has received information from multiple government officials that “the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election”.
The complaint goes on to name the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as “a central figure in this effort” as well as stating that “Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well”.
The whistleblower admits to not being a “direct witness” to most of the events they are reporting. However, they do explain that multiple officials have reported “fact patterns”. In short, multiple officials are saying the same things.
The whistleblower continues on to state that they are performing their duties reporting this “serious or flagrant problem, abuse, or violation of law” through the proper legal channels.
Then, the real meat of the complaint is laid out. The whistleblower describes the President’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart, whereby after the initial pleasantries President Trump used the rest of the call in an effort to persuade the Ukrainian President to pursue a course of action which would aid President Trump in his 2020 re-election bid. Namely, to launch investigations of corruption into former Vice President and 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden (in fact there was already an investigation and no wrongdoing was found on the part of the Bidens).
One of the most damning parts of the complaint is that it documents how the White House understood at the time how grievous the actions of the U.S. President were. Not only that, it later states that there were “approximately a dozen White House officials who listened to the call”. Meaning many witnesses who could be subpoenaed to testify if the investigation gets that far.
Using the office for personal gain is something Trump has recently been accused of, when Vice President Mike Pence visited Ireland early September and his controversial choice to stay at a Trump hotel on the other side of the country. In the United States, a President (as well as any government employee) is strictly forbidden from using their office for private gain. That alone would be enough to impeach a sitting President.
Further in the complaint, the whistleblower documents that multiple officials had recounted how “senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call”. This could mean that not only are President Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General Barr involved in the alleged attempt to meddle in a presidential election, but also multiple senior White House officials may have conspired to cover up these crimes. In short, if found guilty it likely won’t just be Trump’s head on the chopping block.
The complaint continues on for some length and an annotated version can be found at CNN for a more in depth analysis.
Ultimately, this complaint is so damning that it would be worrying if Washington wasn’t so affected by it. If found to be true, it lays out not just a crime committed by a sitting President but a wider conspiracy within the White House to actively cover it up. The complaint covers not just one man but an entire team of people, some working to meddle in an upcoming presidential election and others attempting to prevent that fact from becoming public knowledge.
After the news of the whistleblower complaint broke, many Democrats started calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump. Some had been calling for it since the release of the final Robert Mueller report but after said complaint was released, more followed.
With a meeting set between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 12th District) and the Democrats on whether to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry, Donald Trump decided to authorise the released of the “complete, fully declassified and unredacted” transcript of his July phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump later tweeted that he believed people would “see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call”. However, this was not the case.
The transcript (which can be read in full here) corroborates the whistleblower’s complaint concerns. It contains passages which confirm that President Trump not only mentioned the Bidens (which Trump previously confirmed anyway) but that he also asked President Zelensky if he “can look into it”. “It” being the allegations of corruption against the Bidens. Trump also repeatedly reminds the President how much the U.S. does for Ukraine. Representative Adam Schiff tweeted that the transcript reads like a “classic mob shakedown”.
However, this transcript isn’t a transcript at all. In fact, it is not known if a complete transcript even exists. This account is but a memo and not a verbatim account of the President’s phone call. On the memo there is a caution written, stating that it contains the “notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place”, meaning they may not be entirely accurate nor complete. In fact, in one of the key areas of interest where Trump discusses the Bidens and asks President Zelensky if he can “look into it”, there is an ellipsis (…) which denotes something missing in the interim of the conversation. What was said may never be known unless a true transcript of the conversation surfaces. However, since the Watergate scandal which ended the presidency of Richard Nixon, U.S. Presidents have been wary of taping any of their conversations.
On the same day as the transcript — as it is still referred to as — was released, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats agreed to begin a formal impeachment inquiry.
Donald Trump was not at all happy.
Ms. Pelosi said of President Trump that “the actions taken to date by the President have seriously violated the Constitution” and that President Trump “must be held accountable — no one is above the law”. Speaking of the President’s conduct, Ms. Pelosi stated that Trump had revealed his “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”
President Trump has since repeatedly called the whistleblower a “fake” complaint and called the whistleblower themselves a “fraud”. He has also, again, attacked the media, calling it a “crooked press” and a “dishonest media”.
Trump has continued his to attack not just on the whistleblower themselves but the person or persons who gave the whistleblower their information. In a private speech to U.S. diplomats on September 26, President Trump called the whistleblower “almost a spy” and their informant being “close to a spy”, and that it amounted to “treason” and alluded to “the old days” when spies and those found guilty of treason would be executed. To which, Trump received laughs from the crowd.
Trump’s words would later be echoed by Stephen Miller, a top adviser to the President, calling the whistleblower a “deep state operative, pure and simple” and that they were “close to” being a spy, in an interview on Fox News.
Since, Andrew P. Bakaj, a lawyer representing the whistleblower, has sent a letter to Acting National Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire expressing his concerns for the safety of his clients amid the President’s remarks. Bakaj wrote that he expected “the situation to worsen” and carried on to state that “certain individuals” have issued a $50,000 “bounty” for information that leads to the whistleblower’s identity.
In his tweets, Trump has said that he wishes to meet his “accuser” and that there would be “Big Consequences”.
Despite the President’s attacks and accusations, the whistleblower has agreed to testify “very soon” to Congress, Representative Adam Schiff has said. The key concern being the preservation of the anonymity of the whistleblower and their safety.
On Friday, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was subpoenaed by House Democrats for documents pertaining to Ukraine and President Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
On Monday, House Democrats subpoenaed Rudy Giuliani for all communication records regarding his request for the Ukrainian government to investigate the corruption allegations of the Bidens. Giuliani has previously admitted to asking the Ukraine to open these investigations.
This is an extremely fast paced and involved investigation which seems to have only just begun.