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Trump’s whistle-blower scandal explained

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Intelligence services square up with Congress over misconduct claims against the president

In Depth Gabriel Power
Friday, September 20, 2019 - 12:46pm

Donald Trump is mired in controversy once again after a US intelligence whistle-blower accused the president of “multiple acts” of misconduct including making a secret promise to a foreign leader.

Media outlets in Washington this week reported that the unnamed source had come forward with claims that Trump struck some sort of covert deal during a phone call with an overseas counterpart, the identity of whom is not currently known, although experts are pointing at Ukraine.

But the president’s conduct is far from the only issue in question. The scandal deepened on Thursday when it emerged that the allegations may have been covered up by the Trump administration.

The alleged whitewash has prompted a furious back-and-forth between Congress and the US intelligence community, with House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff threatening possible legal action if officials did not share the details of the complaint.

So what exactly is going on and what could it mean for Trump?

What are the whistle-blower’s claims?

The source, believed to be an intelligence official, reportedly complained of “at least one instance of Trump making an unspecified commitment to a foreign leader and includes other actions”, according to The New York Times.

The Washington Post reports that it is “not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver”.

In July and early August, Trump reportedly took part in phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dutch PM Mark Rutte, Pakistani PM Imran Khan and Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al Than, and received two letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

However, special attention is being paid to a 25 July phone call between Trump President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. CNN reports that while there is “so far no public evidence that the whistle-blower’s complaint pertains to this conversation”, a bizarre media appearance by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Thursday suggests that may be the case.

During an interview with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, Giuliani was confronted over allegations that he had previously asked Ukraine to “look into” former vice president and current presidential hopeful Joe Biden.

“No, actually I didn’t,” Giuliani responded. “I asked the Ukraine to investigate the allegations that there was interference in the election of 2016 by the Ukrainians for the benefit of Hillary Clinton.”

However, when the question was put to him once more seconds later, he responded: “Of course I did.”

Why are there accusations of a cover-up?

The whistle-blower reportedly submitted their complaint to Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson on 12 August.

Under the Intelligence Community Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (ICWPA), Atkinson had 14 days to assess the complaint and forward it through the appropriate channel, according to its severity.

Atkinson determined that the allegation was serious enough to be considered a matter of “urgent concern”, which The Guardian describes as “a legal threshold that requires notification of congressional oversight committees”. 

As well as notifying the committees, Atkinson was required to send a full copy of the complaint to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Joseph Maguire, who in turn was supposed to forward a full copy to the congressional intelligence committees within seven days.

In this timeline, the deadline would have been 2 September - but Maguire has so far refused to provide a copy of the complaint to Congress.

The unprecedented decision to ignore whistle-blower laws has triggered claims of a cover-up and “a heated row with congressmen and fierce speculation about the allegation itself”, says The Telegraph.

How has Trump responded?

The Telegraph reports that Trump “did not explicitly deny that his comments to a world leader were addressed in the whistle-blower’s complaint”, instead tweeting “a broad rebuttal”.

“Another Fake News story out there - It never ends!” he wrote. “Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!”

The president continued: “....Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”

And Congress?

House Intelligence Committee boss Schiff, a Democrat, has threatened to sue the Trump administration over its refusal to disclose the complaint.

“There is an effort to prevent this information from getting to Congress,” he told reporters. “We’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is to make sure that the national security is protected.”

Quoting from a letter that he sent to Maguire, Schiff said: “Contrary to your express obligations under the law, you are withholding ... an authorised and protected whistle-blower disclosure.”

He also accused Maguire of consulting with the Justice Department before deciding not to pass on the complaint to Congress. 

Jim Himes, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, told the MSNBC network that Maguire “broke the law when he decided to basically intercept the inspector general’s report to Congress”.

“This has never been done before in the history of inspector general reports to the Congress, and the American people should be worried about that,” he added.

As the row intensifies, Maguire has been subpoenaed by the House intelligence committee and is expected to testify publicly about the whistle-blower complaint next Thursday.

CNN says that it is “hard to see how any of this ends well”, while Vox simply warns: “Buckle up.”

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