Impeachment, Ukraine

The Whistleblower Complaint Is Required Reading for All Americans

It reads like a spy novel. But of course it's not.
by Kim Wehle
September 27, 2019
Featured Image
Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani. (Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s tsunami of news is so stunning that it makes the Mueller probe seem quaint. The most important piece of information—the whistleblower complaint detailing an “urgent concern” involving President Trump, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Vice President Pence, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General Barr, among many others—finally came to light on Thursday morning, after weeks of disturbing delay. 

And it’s a whopper.

It’s hard to imagine that any measure of White House spin could get around the complaint’s laundry list of wrongdoing (though darned if the administration isn’t trying). We already know from the White House’s release of call notes from Trump’s July 25 conversation with Zelensky that Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to “look into” whether, as vice president, Joe Biden pressed to have a Ukranian prosecutor removed to protect his son Hunter. (Spoiler alert: Biden didn’t.)

 The “ask” came after Zelensky thanked Trump for the United States’ “great support” and said he was “ready to continue to cooperate.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Here’s what else the August 12 complaint identifies from information purportedly gleaned “[o]ver the past four months” from more than “half a dozen” U.S. officials, including some “who had direct knowledge of the call”:

1) “[T]he President pressured Mr. Zelenskyy to … assist in purportedly uncovering that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine.” 

One has to wonder why Trump is interested in pinning the 2016 election interference on Ukraine, a U.S. ally and foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The complaint also notes that, “[i]n May, Attorney General Barr announced that he was initiating a probe into the ‘origins’ of the Russian investigation.”

2) Trump made “a specific request that the Ukrainian leader locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and examined by the U.S. cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, which initially reported that Russian hackers had penetrated the DNC’s networks in 2016.” 

Yes, the complaint reports that Trump asked the Ukrainians to hand over the DNC’s actual network servers from 2016. For now, we can only speculate as to why, though as Tim Miller wrote in the Bulwark, it might well be that Trump believes in a conspiracy theory that relies on the mistaken notion that CrowdStrike, the company the DNC hired to analyze its server after it was hacked in 2016, was based on Ukraine. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

3) The White House officials who conveyed this information “were deeply disturbed by what had transpired during the call” and reported “that there was already a ‘discussion ongoing’ with White House lawyers about how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials’ retelling, that they had witnessed the President abuse his office for personal gain.” 

If White House lawyers were worried, they should still be. Government lawyers work for the American people, not any one person in office. They owe a duty of fealty to the rule of law and the Constitution. If they do their job properly, it inevitably means upsetting Donald J. Trump, which many people in his orbit refuse to do.

4) On the evening of the call, a message was posted on the website of the Ukrainian President stating that “‘Donald Trump expressed his conviction that the new Ukrainian government will be able to . . . complete the investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.”

The Ukrainian president—in real time—posted a note that corroborates the “quid pro quo” scenario that Republican supporters of President Trump insist is somehow lacking. Not only is that information not lacking, but it is really beside the point. Even without a quid pro quo, the complaint presents a troubling array of potential violations of federal campaign finance laws, sweeping abuses of the power of the office of the presidency, and widespread efforts to hide the matter from the American people. The complaint later states that the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy.”

5) According to “multiple U.S. officials,” in the days following the phone call, “senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced—as is customary—by the White House situation room.”

“Locking down” important information from the American people that has nothing to do with national security or legitimate state secrets is the antithesis of transparency and undermines democracy.

6) White House officials told the whistleblower “that they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to Cabinet-level officials. Instead, the transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”

This one speaks for itself. Wow. 

The complaint adds that “[a]ccording to White House officials, . . . this was ‘not the first time’ under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codework-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive—rather than national security sensitive—information.”

All told, on the face of the complaint this looks like the tip of the proverbial iceberg. How deep does the Trump corruption scheme go? What did Attorney General William Barr know, when did he know it, and what were his ethical obligations to the American people in those moments? Not to mention about Mike Pence, who in May was “instructed . . . to cancel his planned travel to Ukraine to attend President Zelenskyy’s inauguration.” According to U.S. officials, “it was ‘made clear’ to them that the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy until he saw how Zelenskyy ‘chose to act’ in office.” 

And of course, who knows the real reasons why on July 18 the president “issued instructions to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine”?  Those instructions were relayed by “an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official” and reiterated “[d]uring interagency meetings on 23 July and 26 July.” Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated publicly that he was left in the dark, even though Congress had appropriated the funding months before. 

If this were just a gripping spy novel, we could have our rush of adrenaline and go on with daily life. But it’s not. The very fabric of democracy is shredding before our eyes, and Congress needs to do triage. This is no longer a red-vs.-blue thing. It’s a right-vs.-wrong thing, and the ultimate “wrong” would be to allow our system of government to morph into one that tolerates this kind of power abuse without consequences. That would be a very dark America, indeed.

Kim Wehle

Kim Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She is currently a visiting professor and fellow in law and government at American University’s Washington College of Law. She is also a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, and the author of How to Read the Constitution—and Why (HarperCollins).