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The acting DNI needs to explain why he passed the whistleblower’s complaint to the White House and DOJ — but not Congress

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

If you like unfinished puzzles, then waking to the Congressional agenda this morning should be perfect.

We’ve had House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dramatically declaring that the unasked, unanswered questions we’re about to hear are already pointing towards Impeachment.

We’ve had President Donald J. Trump already acknowledge that yes, he reached out to a foreign power, Ukraine, to reopen a moribund investigation against Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in an apparent abuse of power to win reelection points by spreading political dirt on Biden.

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Maguire is set to appear today, along with copies of all the documents involved, but has been advised by the Justice Department against telling all.

We’ve even had confirmation that military aid money voted by Congress for Ukraine had been withheld, that the White House was declassifying and making available a summary of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and that, for once, there were even talks about letting the whistleblower who started this current impeachment fervor by an official complaint through normal channels to be able to speak directly to congressional investigators.

In short, we have elements for a showdown in a quickly moving drama.

But what we have not had yet is the actual testimony of Joseph Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence, who received the complaint, or substantive testimony from Michael K. Atkinson, the Trump-appointed Inspector General for the intelligence community, about the handling of an “urgent” complaint about a series of events that apparently revolve around Trump pressuring Ukraine to re-open an investigation of the Bidens. Maguire is set to appear today, a deadline in the newly declared formal impeachment war, along with copies of all the documents involved, but has been advised by the Justice Department against telling all. Atkinson appeared several days ago saying he had been told not to talk by his boss, who, after all, is the target of all this impeachment talk.

Thus the unfinished puzzle. We have the frame, the stage, the formality of it all, but not the starter gun. We even have the probable last act, in which, after all impeachment proceedings are defined and honed, the Senate Republicans decide just to look the other way, and let the president stay in office.

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The best we can hope for today is some candor from Maguire. Now that the Ukrainian cat is effectively out of the bag, what’s the harm in letting Maguire testify that the White House would have preferred to keep this whole thing quiet. As things stand going into this deadline day, the White House is offering cooperation on those details that it believes are to its advantage. For Maguire to choose to resist questions will simply add more charges of obstruction to a now-moving train.

Other developments yesterday proved that little ahead is going to be straightforward:

  • The summary promised to Congress apparently was read first to Rudy Giuliani, he told Fox & Friends, who found nothing wrong in it, naturally. But Trump actually urged Zelensky to contact Atty. Gen. William P. Barr and Giuliani about opening a potential corruption investigation connected to Biden, according to the released document, as well as pressing new investigation involving former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Zelensky said he would try to cooperate. A plea from Zelensky for defensive weapons is followed by Trump asking for the favor of looking into the Bidens.
  • Trump and Zalensky met face to face at the United Nations yesterday in a friendly encounter, in which Zalensky thanked Trump for weapons support, deferred from involvement in the Biden question before Trump took over and turned it into a stump speech about witch hunts.
  • The Washington Post reported that intelligence officials referred these matters to the Justice Department as a possible crime, but prosecutors concluded last week that the conduct was not criminal, according to senior Justice Department officials. Separately, there were calls for Barr to recuse himself from the many legal disputes to come in this case.
  • House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, D-CA, promised the whistleblower anonymity and protection to offer testimony, but that was subject to negotiation with a White House bent on stopping it. Schiff also said Trump acted like a Mob boss.

We can be thankful for a few of the developments to date:

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  • The whistleblower, whoever he or she is, showed bravado and courage in outlining a case of presidential overreach – all at personal risk. This person is a hero.
  • The House Democrats actually look as if they finally are moving, after months of saying that they were moving, to consider impeachment, still a rarity in our constitutional government. They will need to steel their resolve for the next immediate chapters which require defining – and then persuading – what actual bad presidential acts are considered unconstitutional. Focusing on this Ukraine pressure incident alone is cleaner, but may run into a there-is-nothing-illegal-here defense. Pelosi’s declaration, which must be ratified in a House vote in which 218 Democratic votes are assured as a majority, is supposed to finally give her folks the leverage they need to finish exploration of other possibly impeachable overreaches in ethics and emoluments, in financial crimes, and in the all-things-Russia world of obstruction of justice as well as, ironically, dealing with a foreign policy about election interference.
  • Senate Republicans have a chance to show themselves as something other than quislings, by actually remaining open to the possibility that what Trump has owned up to here, in fact, has bragged about in his various, varying explanations over the course of a week, actually is over the line of acceptability. Still, I give this group credit for acting to back the release of the whistleblower documents. It’s a start.
  • Even Joe Biden finally found his voice, which is a good thing, though he used it to bat Trump around rather than speaking directly to what is widely considered anywhere but in a Republican corner a dead issue over how Biden joined a wide majority of European voices calling for dismissal of a particularly heinous Ukrainian prosecutor who, at the time, was not even looking at the company for which Biden’s son was a member of the board of directors.
  • For his part, Trump seems to be saying Bring it On, and already is using his perception of Democratic overreach and presidential harassment for fund-raising purposes for his reelection. Trump appears to have no problem in making this incident, yet again, a measure of himself as an invincible politician and not a measure of what it says about an America that would debase its politics.

Along the way, we Americans can feel extremely upset that we have a Justice Department that seeks to rewrite law after law to protect the president rather than the country, and a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury who throw protocol to the wind to back this president’s ever-changing versions of the truth. And we can all take particular umbrage that Rudy Giuliani has emerged as an alternative State Department.

As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt argues, Trump  “put his own interests above the national interest by pressuring a foreign country to damage a political rival. He evidently misused taxpayer money in the process. He has shown he’s willing to do almost anything to win re-election.”

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Reaching this point has been overly dramatic and overly fraught with competing versions of Truth, and of what constitutes acceptable presidential behavior.

We can hope that some direct testimony and actual access to documents makes for better oversight. Without it, Trump’s behaviors know no boundaries.

Public, Private Appearances

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is scheduled to appear before an open hearing with the House Intelligence Committee at 9 a.m on Thursday. It will be covered on CSPAN 3. He has a closed hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee later in the day.

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