What kind of promise could Donald Trump have made to a “foreign leader” that would prompt a whistleblower complaint by an intelligence official to an inspector general? Did Trump promise to swap California for Greenland? Or did he promise that he would have more flexibility after the next election when talking with you-know-who? The mind boggles, and the media reels:
Breaking overnight: Word of a whistleblower inside the Trump administration has triggered a showdown with the nation’s intelligence agencies.
The issue involves a phone call between President Trump and a foreign leader – and what the president may have promised. pic.twitter.com/c6i7IpKf0I
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) September 19, 2019
The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
It was not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver, but his direct involvement in the matter has not been previously disclosed. It raises new questions about the president’s handling of sensitive information and may further strain his relationship with U.S. spy agencies. One former official said the communication was a phone call.
This may come to a head today when intelligence inspector general Michael Atkinson appears in closed session at the House Intelligence Committee. Atkinson has reported that the complaint was credible enough to be of “urgent concern,” which is the level at which the IG or the ODNI usually brief House and Senate intel committees of the situation. However, acting ODNI Joseph Maguire, who just recently took over from the retiring Dan Coats, has refused to do so, which prompted speculation as to the nature of the information. Even before the leak indicated that it involved Trump, Maguire had already agreed to meet with the House panel next week to discuss his reticence.
Who might have been the “foreign leader”? Presumably it wasn’t the royal family of Denmark to discuss Greenland. The complaint reached Atkinson on August 12th of this year, while Trump was on vacation in New Jersey. The Washington Post did a little sleuthing and found five possible contacts:
Among them was a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the White House initiated on July 31. Trump also received at least two letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the summer, describing them as “beautiful” messages. In June, Trump said publicly that he was opposed to certain CIA spying operations against North Korea. Referring to a Wall Street Journal report that the agency had recruited Kim’s half-brother, Trump said, “I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices.”
Trump met with other foreign leaders at the White House in July, including the prime minister of Pakistan, the prime minister of the Netherlands, and the emir of Qatar.
Thanks to the hysteria of the last three years, most will likely jump to the conclusion that the connection involved Putin. It seems at least somewhat possible that it involved Pakistan and/or Qatar, both of whom have been deeply involved with our negotiations with the Taliban. Could this be related to the offer to host the Taliban representatives at Camp David, which might have created a serious security risk? That got leaked a couple of weeks afterward and left Trump with some egg on his face. If that was the complaint, though, why would Maguire still refuse to inform the intel committees?
How seriously should we take this? The IG’s assessment is that it’s a serious matter, and one has to wonder why Maguire’s holding back on traditional notifications, too. Trump’s track record of discretion and rhetorical control is, er, problematic to say the least. Is it easy to imagine that Trump blew some critical intelligence and/or exposed a source or method in his stream-of-consciousness conversation style when talking with a not-terribly-friendly foreign leader? You bet it is.
However, Trump has had a contentious relationship with the US intel community since his election (and perhaps before, as we’re finding out from the Russiagate collapse), and the intel community has not been above politics in the past, either. The Constitution gives presidents the authority to conduct foreign policy and diplomacy, and the law gives presidents the authority to make classification and declassification decisions. That doesn’t make Trump’s actions wise, but it’s quite another to assume they’re illegal.
For the moment, we should take this concern seriously, if still retaining a little skepticism. Besides, I’m old enough to remember that the media didn’t get all that concerned when hearing an American president promise a Russian president “more flexibility” on their priorities after an election. We’ll see if Trump’s alleged promise was more problematic, but let’s not pretend that the sudden interest in presidential indiscretions and promises by the media and the intel community has been consistently applied.
Update: Trump issued a denial on Twitter, saying he knows full well he’s not the only one on these calls:
….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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 19, 2019
That’s surely his intent, but as those who remember the Stinky in Helsinki recall, that may not always be the outcome.