You can tell just how bad President Donald Trump’s Ukraine predicament is by how flimsy his defenders’ arguments have become.
Since Trump has already confirmed the key facts of the scandal — the pressuring of Ukraine to investigate his political opponent Joe Biden, the use of military aid as a possible incentive — every defense thus far has been pretty pathetic. But a new, bizarre line of argument emerged in recent days from the conservative (and mysteriously funded) outlet the Federalist, only to be quickly and thoroughly debunked Monday by the Trump-appointed intelligence community inspector general.
The argument relied on the claim that the whistleblower who drew attention to Trump’s corrupt Ukraine dealings relied on some “secondhand” information in filing a complaint with Inspector General Michael Atkinson. This was one of the myriad pathetic defenses Trump and friends have offered of his conduct, which was moot by the time it was public anyway because the president had already admitted to the bulk of the alleged conduct. And the White House’s own memorandum documenting the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a clear confirmation of the complaint’s secondhand allegations.
But despite this, conservative writer Sean Davis touted what he seemed to think was a game-changing allegation in the Federalist. Really, it was an error-filled mess. He wrote on Sept. 27:
Between May 2018 and August 2019, the intelligence community secretly eliminated a requirement that whistleblowers provide direct, first-hand knowledge of alleged wrongdoings. This raises questions about the intelligence community’s behavior regarding the August submission of a whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump. The new complaint document no longer requires potential whistleblowers who wish to have their concerns expedited to Congress to have direct, first-hand knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing that they are reporting.
The implication in the report, not explicitly spelled out, was that there was somehow a deep state conspiracy to loosen the requirements for whistleblower complaints so that a dubious allegation could be filed and thus be used to take down Trump. It was ridiculous on its face, because, as I’ve noted, Trump already confirmed the key allegations in the complaint, and the impeachment inquiry anyway is designed to get at the truth, not rely on the complaint at face value. But because they’re so desperate for any argument to defend Trump, the right wing gobbled up Davis’ thin gruel, including the president himself. And three GOP lawmakers — Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Kevin McCarthy of California, and Devin Nunes of California — even sent a letter to Atkinson demanding an explanation.
Ridiculous as it was, it’s good they sent the letter — because Atkinson responded by thoroughly debunking the conspiracy theory in a new statement Monday night.
Perhaps most critically, the central implication of Davis’ story is false, Atkinson revealed. The whistleblower did not, according to the statement, use a new form. They used the form that has been in place since May 2018. That alone completely demolishes the impact of the story, but it only gets worse from there. The statement continued:
Although the form requests information about whether the Complainant possesses first-hand knowledge about the matter about which he or she is lodging the complaint, there is no such requirement set forth in the statute. In fact, by law the Complainant – or any individual in the Intelligence Community who wants to report information with respect to an urgent concern to the congressional intelligence committees – need not possess first-hand information in order to file a complaint or information with respect to an urgent concern.
So Davis’s relying on the old form’s touting of the need for first-hand information was just pointless and out of joint with the law.
The core truth of Davis’ story is that there has been a change made to the form in question. But as Atkinson explained, other officials determined that the forms should be changed in recent months because they misleadingly suggested that firsthand information might be required on a whistleblower’s part, which is false.
Finally, as if all that wasn’t enough to debunk the conspiracy theory, the statement noted that the whistleblower’s complaint included both firsthand and secondhand information. The statement continued:
As part of his determination that the urgent concern appeared credible, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community determined that the Complainant had official and authorized access to the information and sources referenced in the Complainant’s Letter and Classified Appendix, including direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct, and that the Complainant has subject matter expertise related to much of the material information provided in the Complainant’s Letter and Classified Appendix. In short, the ICIG did not find that the Complainant could “provide nothing more than second-hand or unsubstantiated assertions,” which would have made it much harder, and significantly less likely, for the Inspector General to determine in a 14-calendar day review period that the complaint “appeared credible,” as required by statute.
And, after conducting his own, distinct review of the facts, Atkinson determined that the complaint was “credible” and of “urgent concern.”
So, the new conspiracy theory about editing forms to take down a president has gone up in smoke. It is substantially wrong in almost every significant way, and there’s no reason to take it seriously. Of course, conspiracy theories have a tendency to take on a life of their own regardless of the facts — so don’t expect this one to go away anytime soon.