Nicholas Kristof: Trump and the whistleblower

There’s so much we don’t know about the whistleblower complaint concerning President Donald Trump. But here are four things we do know:

First, it seems that an experienced intelligence official was so deeply disturbed by Trump’s interactions with the president of Ukraine to feel the need to blow the whistle.

Second, the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who was appointed by Trump and has long experience on national security issues, found the whistleblower’s concern to be legitimate and urgent.

Third, the whistleblower complaint came after Trump and his associates hounded Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to undertake a corruption investigation involving Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The Ukrainian summary of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy included this cryptic sentence: “Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.” The Wall Street Journal reports that in that phone call, Trump pressed Zelenskiy about eight times to work with Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to investigate the Bidens.

Eight times! Nevertheless, he persisted!

Fourth, Trump withheld $250 million in military assistance urgently needed by Ukraine to fend off Russian aggression, although Ukraine didn’t learn of this until August. He released the money after the whistleblower complaint and after members of Congress intervened.

So for all the murkiness, let’s be clear: This stinks.

(Trump’s position is that his phone call with Zelenskiy was “pitch-perfect” and “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.”)

Thus it appears that after benefiting from Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump then tried to coax Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election. It’s particularly egregious that Trump seemed eager to trade $250 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars for Ukrainian help in tarring a Democratic rival.

Giuliani has helpfully acknowledged that he urged Ukraine’s government to investigate whether Biden’s diplomatic efforts were meant to help Hunter, who had been involved in a gas company in Ukraine. (There’s no evidence of this.) Giuliani also pushed Ukraine to reinvestigate old corruption charges that ensnared Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and to conclude that this was a political attack on Trump.

In effect, Trump apparently tried to use U.S. diplomatic might and the leverage of military assistance to get Ukraine to exonerate Manafort for 2016 and smear Biden for 2020.

The incoherence of the Trump-Giuliani position is underscored in this interview Thursday evening on CNN:

Chris Cuomo: Did you ask the Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?

Rudy Giuliani: No. Actually, I didn’t …

Cuomo, 24 seconds later: So, you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?

Giuliani: Of course, I did.

Trump has been credibly accused of using the presidency to enrich himself (summits at Trump properties!), to protect himself from law enforcement (appeals to James Comey, offers of pardons!) and to punish perceived adversaries (Amazon, CNN, Andrew McCabe). Now he may have harnessed the power of the presidency to gain political advantage.

This is bombshell layered upon bombshell. On top of the initial accusation by the whistleblower is the refusal of the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to obey federal law and relay the matter to Congress within one week.

The law is very clear, but it’s also true that Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both suggested that there might be situations involving classified information where a president should not follow the statute. These are very tricky questions of executive power versus congressional oversight.

Jeffrey Smith, who was the CIA’s general counsel under Clinton, told me that despite the technical legal arguments, there should still be ways to allow oversight, especially if the core issue is a commitment that the president has made to a foreign power.

Smith cited a time when he was at the CIA and a matter came up that did not technically require reporting to Congress but still raised troubling questions. After some soul-searching within the agency, it provided a briefing to the “gang of eight” congressional leaders, and Smith told me that the same would be appropriate today.

Look, this whistleblower’s complaint will leak. The Trump administration’s recalcitrance will simply make it all the more newsworthy.

When historians review Trump’s term, I think they will see combat between an out-of-control president and various U.S. institutions, such as the courts, the Civil Service, law enforcement, the intelligence community, the House and the news media, which generally have done a credible job of standing up for laws and norms and against one-man rule. The only institution Trump has co-opted completely is the Republican Party in Congress.

Today’s struggle over the whistleblower may be remembered as a central battle in that epic confrontation. The core question is whether our president can get away with weaponizing the federal government to punish political opponents, or whether legal constraints and congressional oversight can keep him in line.

This is a test of our political system, and the next few months will determine whether we pass.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.