The details remain secret, but the information we have already suggests that this situation is even more appalling than what we have seen until now from the Trump administration.
Here’s how we know that this is not a run-of-the-mill Trump outrage.
First, since he took office, the President has routinely acted in shocking ways. But this is the first time his actions have prompted high-level figures in the intelligence community, including a Trump appointee, to take unprecedented action.
The intelligence official who filed the whistleblower complaint has witnessed Trump’s behavior before. This time, the official decided it was so far beyond the pale that it was time to take action.
The official went through the exceedingly rare whistleblower process and on August 12 handed to Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson a formal complaint. Atkinson, who was appointed by Trump, reviewed the complaint and found that it met the legal threshold to call it an “urgent concern,” an even more uncommon occurrence.
By law, that can mean, among other things, “a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, violation of law … but does not include differences of opinions concerning public policy matters.” So “urgent concern” is not about bad policy or politics, it’s potentially about a violation of the law. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, the “urgent” designation requires that the complaint be provided to Congress. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, after IG Atkinson informed the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, Maguire discussed the matter with the Justice Department but kept it from Congress. CNN has now found that the White House was also involved in advising the DNI not to report the complaint to Congress.
The lack of action was so alarming to Atkinson — again, a Trump appointee — that he contacted the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, according to the Washington Post and to Democratic Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. Schiff then demanded that acting director Maguire follow the law and send the information to Congress. Maguire refused. That’s when the conflict exploded into public view.
The first we heard of this was last Friday, when Schiff issued a subpoena demanding that Maguire hand over the material. In the announcement, Schiff disclosed that the whistleblower complaint involves “an area of active investigation by the Committee.” The complaint was found by the Inspector General to be “urgent and credible,” he said, and all but accused Maguire, the White House, and the Justice Department of engaging in a cover-up to protect the President.
Schiff also accused Maguire of potentially breaking the law on two points. Not only did he not refer the complaint to Congress, in violation of “an unambiguous statutory command,” but he consulted with the Justice Department, a part of the executive branch, which Schiff assumed was the subject of the complaint.
Maguire refused to comply with the subpoena, claiming, in a letter, that the issue does not qualify for “urgent concern” because it involves individuals in the executive branch (that is, the presidency) and not the intelligence community.
In a letter to the Intelligence Committee, IG Atkinson vehemently disagreed, saying the complaint “relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.”
Despite declining the subpoena, Maguire’s letter also said, “Notwithstanding that conclusion … ODNI remains committed to working with the Committee to reach an acceptable accommodation” but said it would not be possible to comply with the short deadline. Inspector General Atkinson is testifying in Congress behind closed doors on Thursday, but CNN has been told the hearings focus on the handling, not the content, of the complaint. Acting national intelligence director Maguire, according to Schiff’s office, has agreed to appear next week.
So, let’s review: Trump did something that was deemed so scandalous, so alarming, that an intelligence official felt he had to act. When he told Intelligence Community Inspector General Atkinson, a Trump appointee, Atkinson reviewed and concluded that it was troubling and credible enough to alert Maguire and Congress. Maguire, instead of doing what the law dictates and handing the material to Congress, took it to the Justice Department, headed by Attorney General William Barr (the man who gave Americans a misleading summary of the Mueller Report), apparently flouting the Whistleblower Act and endangering the Constitutional separation of powers. What could provoke such a chain of events?
On Thursday night, The New York Times and Washington Post reported that the whistleblower’s complaint deals, at least in part, with Ukraine.
Government officials have revealed little of the substance, but journalists have uncovered troubling details of what prompted all this. The Washington Post first reported that, according to two sources, Trump made a “promise” to a foreign leader. CNN has not confirmed the report of a promise, but confirms that the incident concerned a “communication” between Trump and a foreign leader. NBC corroborated that it was a phone call. Atkinson’s congressional testimony suggested that the complaint refers to “a sequence of events,” rather than a single communication, one source told CNN. A different source disputed the claim that Atkinson shared substantive detail.
We know of at least five leaders Trump communicated with in the weeks before the August 12 complaint, according to the Washington Post. Yes, they include Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Trump also engaged with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by letter and met with the prime ministers of Pakistan and the Netherlands, and the Emir of Qatar.
This new scandal dovetails with the news last week that earlier this year the intelligence community decided to extract one of its most valuable agents from the Kremlin, and did it just after Trump revealed classified intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador — known as a spy master to US intelligence — during a meeting in the Oval Office.
Trump’s track record of mishandling classified secrets is well established. But that in itself is not a violation of the law. As President, he has wide latitude to carry out foreign policy. That includes declassifying information simply by talking about it. It also includes having conversations with foreign leaders and implementing policies that may seem unwise or objectionable.
An “urgent concern” by the intelligence community inspector general is another matter entirely.
Once again, we have encountered another secret in a presidency that has been defined by obfuscation and falsehoods. We cannot afford to treat this one as just another of Trump’s litany of outrages. The overarching question about this administration remains, what is Trump hiding?