For days we’ve been hearing about the standoff between Chairman Adam Schiff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence over a whistleblower complaint. Josh Kovensky walked us through some of the details this afternoon. Now The Washington Post has escalated the story dramatically by reporting that the complaint is about President Trump himself and centers on a “promise” he made to foreign leader. The complaint was filed on August 12th. So this is all quite recent.
There’s a lot of discussion and context in the Post article. But that’s the central reported detail. It’s not clear who the foreign leader was or what was promised or really anything else. The additional key detail is this: the complaint from the unidentified whistleblower was submitted to Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. He determined that the complaint was credible and troubling enough to be a matter of “urgent concern”, a legal standard that requires reporting the matter to Congress.
Obviously, anyone in the government can file a whistleblower complaint. They can be frivolous or nonsensical. But the Inspector General determined it was serious and of a pressing nature. Atkinson was nominated to the position by President Trump in 2018 but he appears to be a career government lawyer. He worked at DOJ for 15 years prior to his nomination.
The decision to withhold the information from Congress was made by acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who’s in that position after the dismissal of Dan Coats. But the Post suggests that it’s not actually Maguire’s choice. The Department of Justice told him to withhold the information from Congress.
Here is the key passage from the Post …
Defenders of Maguire disputed that he is subverting legal requirements to protect Trump, saying that he is trapped in a legitimate legal predicament and that he has made his displeasure clear to officials at the Justice Department and White House.
After fielding the complaint on Aug. 12, Atkinson submitted it to Maguire two weeks later. By law, Maguire is required to transmit such complaints to Congress within seven days. But in this case, he refrained from doing so after turning for legal guidance to officials at the Justice Department.
In a sign of Atkinson’s discomfort with this situation, the inspector general informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the existence of the whistleblower complaint — without revealing its substance — in early September.
So it appears that in the guise of legal guidance the DOJ instructed Maguire not to share the complaint with Congress. Atkinson took matters into his own hands, informing Congress of the existence of a complaint while not sharing its substance, in deference to the DOJ’s legal guidance.
Bill Barr runs the Justice Department. He protects Donald Trump. Period. So the DOJ’s role here is little mystery. It is worth noting here that this is a case in which there are legitimate constitutional issues. When it comes to classified information, the whole system is a bureaucratic system to operationalize judgement’s which are nominally the President’s. That’s why the President can actually declassify information by the very act of sharing them. It was his decision to make them secrets in the first place. He’s just changing his mind. Those who believe in maximal presidential power think the President’s authority is basically unconstrained dealing with foreign leaders. Bill Barr is one of those people. And he also wants to protect Trump from the rule of law. So Barr’s jurisprudence and personal corruption point in the same direction.
One final point. The Post article is sourced to “two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.” That’s odd. This only happened about a month ago. Former officials shouldn’t really know anything about this unless somehow they were in the loop and retired like last week or something. That’s not totally implausible as people seem to be being pushed out of the ODNI in the wake of Coats’ departure. But it sounds (and this is just speculation based on news experience) that this information is being pushed out into the public realm using ex-officials as intermediaries. In other words, people on the inside think something is wrong and they’re using go-betweens with high level clearances to get the information public. Again, this last point is speculation. But I think it’s a logical surmise.
It sounds like something pretty serious is up here.