No one questions former Marine commandant James Mattis’ courage. And no one should doubt his wisdom either after this exchange on ABC’s This Week. When Martha Raddatz attempted to draw the former Secretary of Defense into judgment on Ukraine-Gate (or whatever we’re calling it), Mattis conducted … a tactical recon in force to the rear.
Alternate headline: James Mattis Speaks for America.
.@MarthaRaddatz: "Should a president be asking foreign leaders to investigate political opponents?"
Former Defense Sec. James Mattis: "This is is not something I have any background on…I really prefer to talk about things I know more about." https://t.co/dQI0GVFuCn pic.twitter.com/inFwaWll8L
— ABC News (@ABC) September 23, 2019
RADDATZ: Secretary Mattis, I just want to turn to something else that’s in the news, and that’s the whistleblower investigation. President Trump just said “I hope they can put out that conversation.” Should a president be asking foreign leaders to investigate political opponents?
MATTIS: Yeah, Martha, this is not something I have background on. I don’t know anything more than what I read in the news. And apparently no one has seen the complaint, so I really prefer to talk about things I know more about.
Er, why ask Mattis about this at all? Yes, Mattis served on Trump’s Cabinet, and yes, Mattis just wrote a book about leadership, but those don’t give Mattis any particular insight into this controversy. The conversation took place nine months after Mattis left the government, and Mattis wasn’t involved in diplomacy that didn’t relate to military strategy and partnerships. This looks like an attempt by Raddatz to basically brace any Trump official on the question, whether it makes sense to ask them or not. Mattis’ reply was brief and polite but also firm: Ask me questions within my portfolio, please.
Earlier, though, Raddatz did address this with an administration official with an actual connection to the controversy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that no undue pressure was put on Ukraine, and furthermore the question of Joe Biden’s actions with Ukraine is a legitimate issue to pursue:
RADDATZ: And I want to turn to this whistleblower complaint, Mr. Secretary. The complaint involving the president and a phone call with a foreign leader to the director of national intelligence inspector general. That’s where the complaint was launched by the whistle-blower. “The Wall Street Journal” is reporting that President Trump pressed the president of Ukraine eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani to investigate Joe Biden’s son. What do you know about those conversations?
POMPEO: So, you just gave me a report about a I.C. whistle-blower complaint, none of which I’ve seen. I can tell you about this administration’s policies with Ukraine. I remember the previous administration was begged — begged by the Ukrainian people to deliver defensive arms, so that they could protect themselves from Vladimir Putin and Russia. And they gave them blankets. This administration took seriously the responsibility of the Ukrainian people. We’ve provided now on multiple occasions resources, so that the — the Ukrainians can defend themselves. We’ve worked on that. We — we’re working — we’ll see President Zelensky this week. We want a good relationship with the Ukrainian people.
RADDATZ: Let me read something that the…
POMPEO: We want them to have freedom and independence, but — but Martha, if it’s the case that…
RADDATZ: You say you know nothing about this, but let me — let me — let me ask you this question. The Ukrainian presidential readout of the conversation said they discussed — quote — “investigation of corruption cases which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.” The president tweeted Saturday: “It was a perfectly fine and respectful conversation.” Do you think it’s — quote — “perfectly fine” to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent?
POMPEO: I think I saw a statement from the Ukrainian foreign minister yesterday, said there was no pressure applied in the course of the conversation. I do think — I do think, if Vice President Biden behaved inappropriately, if he was protecting his son and intervened with the Ukrainian leadership in a way that was corrupt, I do think we need to get to the bottom of that, Martha. And I — I hope that we will. I hope that, if Vice President Biden engaged in behavior that was inappropriate, I hope the American people will come to learn that. America can’t have…
RADDATZ: We’ve seen no evidence of that yet. But I want to go back to the question.
POMPEO: America cannot have our elections interfered with. America cannot have our elections interfered with. And if — if that’s what took place there, if there was that kind of activity engaged in by Vice President Biden, we need to know.
RADDATZ: There’s no evidence of that yet. But if the conversation was perfectly fine, as President Trump said, why not release the transcript or a portion to the public?
POMPEO: I will have — the White House will have to explain. They — they — you know, Martha, they — we don’t release transcripts very often. It’s the — it’s the rare case. Those are private conversations between world leaders. And it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so, except in — in the most extreme circumstances. There’s — there’s — there’s no — there’s no evidence that that would be appropriate here at this point.
Well, we’ll see. The White House doesn’t release transcripts of these conversations very often, it’s true, but they may not have much choice in this case. The intel community will likely leak it sooner or later to Congress, and it might be better to pre-empt that by publicly releasing it first along with their “perfect” argument.
What seems a bit surprising at this point is Pompeo’s professed ignorance of the conversation, even at this point. It’s been almost two months since the phone call, and several days since it became an issue. Has Pompeo not requested a briefing on the conversation? That seems oddly incurious for the nation’s top diplomat, who would have to operate under whatever agreements are made in those kinds of bilateral discussions, if any.
One would think that Pompeo would be curious enough over the last few days to ask for a look at the transcript himself first before going on the Sunday talk shows, where the topic was bound to arise. Still, if Pompeo hasn’t been briefed, it might be because there was nothing in the call worth briefing about. It’s a good reminder that we should wait for the evidence to emerge before leaping to conclusions about either its “perfection” or its “treason.” Like most hysterias whipped up these days, the answer is likely to fall in between those poles, and it’s anyone’s guess to which of these the truth comes closest.