That didn’t take long. As acting DNI Joseph Maguire prepares to testify about Ukraine-Gate on Capitol Hill, the whistleblower complaint that started the controversy has been declassified and released. As reported earlier, it covers more than just the July 25 phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, but that call plays a key role in the complaint. However, the “central figure” of this complaint isn’t so much Trump as it is Rudy Giuliani.
And as reported earlier, all of the complaint comes from second-hand knowledge of the call and the events that transpired afterward:
The problems with secondhand accounts show up early in the complaint. The whistleblower says that “multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call” told him that Trump “pressured Mr. Zelenskyy” multiple times to “take actions to help the President’s 2020 bid.” The complainant described the events in the call a little more accurately:
Had the complainant actually read the transcript or been in the room, he might have noticed that Zelensky brought up Giuliani and the Biden investigation first, although Trump was certainly happy to discuss it. The Crowdstrike reference is accurate, though, as is its likely value to Trump. However, Trump never mentions his own election bid in the transcript nor does he pressure Zelensky in any obvious way.
However, the complaint also has something to say about the handling of the transcript. According to the complainant, the same sources told him that the White House tried to recall it and lock it down afterward, perhaps worried about how Trump had conducted the call:
This is a curious claim. He or she is not saying that the record had been changed, but reclassified illegitimately. The actual transcript shows that the document was classified SECRET/NOFORN (no foreign access), which seems reasonable for a call between two heads of government. Zelensky discussed specific issues for defense aid, which he’s probably sorry to see splashed on every American media website now, and that would qualify for significant classification. SECRET/NOFORN is not a particularly high level of classification, though, and would likely not hinder Cabinet-level officers from accessing it … unless it was loaded onto the separate system, as the complaint alleges.
But was it? And does that break any laws if it was? The president has the ultimate authority for classification, after all, and foreign policy is almost entirely the purview of the executive branch. If he didn’t want Cabinet members accessing that record, that was Trump’s call to make — although it’s certainly subject to criticism if he did.
Most of the complaint, however, has to do with Rudy Giuliani and his loose-cannon actions within the foreign-policy arena. This too comes to the complainant second-hand:
These are the more serious problems arising from the complaint. Giuliani is Trump’s private attorney, not a man with State Department portfolio with the attendant Senate oversight. ABC’s Jon Karl pointed this out as well:
"There's also national security concerns in Giuliani's activities," @jonkarl reports following release of whistleblower's complaint. https://t.co/5l2vob6F6I
Full coverage here: https://t.co/FsjaaNZiJz pic.twitter.com/gq5eBDemxG
— ABC News (@ABC) September 26, 2019
Interesting, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. The remark about the meeting’s purpose being about “containing the damage to U.S. national security” was the interpretation of those meetings from people other than the complainant — people who appear not to have been participants in the conversation. This is not just secondhand but thirdhand, as is much of the Giuliani material.
Still, this fits with Giuliani’s general public behavior over the last few years. He’s been a loose cannon as an unofficial Trump spokesman too, so much so that many of Trump’s supporters wonder why Trump has kept him around this long. If Giuliani has been inserting himself into Ukrainian diplomatic and security matters in the same way he has with Trump’s media liaison efforts, it’s small wonder why intelligence officials have become alarmed.
All in all, the complaint does seem troubling, although hardly conclusive, while being clearly handicapped by its gossipy nature. It’s not a nothingburger, at least not yet. One can see why the intelligence committees would want to start talking with officials closer to these events to see whether the second- and third-hand accounts here are accurate, and if so, what they mean. As Ben Sasse said last night, everyone needs to slow down while people get to the bottom of the complaint — and determine whether how much of these claims are legitimate concerns, and how much might just be some sour grapes or disgruntlement.
Addendum: I meant to ask this in the penultimate paragraph, but how much more damage is Trump willing to take by keeping Giuliani around? The Mueller probe is over, after all, which is what Giuliani was hired to manage.