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      •  Whistleblowergate Picks up Steam

Whistleblowergate Picks up Steam

There are some days, maybe two or three or four of them a year, where one story is so significant and so dominates the news that it demands extensive attention, while also making any other stories seem a little out of place or beside the point. Today is one of those days, as Whistleblowergate sucked up nearly all the oxygen on Monday.

Where Things Currently Stand

A puzzle that was once missing many pieces is now rather more complete. By the end of this weekend, we already knew that there was a whistleblower, that the whistleblowing was related to interactions between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and that there was allegedly a quid pro quo on the table: The Ukrainians dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his family, and Trump releases the $250 million in foreign aid that Congress set aside for Ukraine (and then added $140 million more on top, for some unexplained reason).

There is no longer any question that Trump wanted the investigation. He has admitted it and, in fact, he brought the matter up eight different times during a single phone conversation with Zelensky. The only real question is whether the President insisted on a quid pro quo. The President's TV lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is not exactly helping to exonerate him on that front. Giuliani has also admitted to pressing the Ukrainians for an investigation, and on Monday conceded that he "can't say 100%" that Trump did not threaten to cut off aid if no dirt on Biden was delivered.

In addition to this already-known stuff, there is now a significant new piece of information, published by the Washington Post on Monday morning. They have confirmed that several days before the phone call between Trump and Zelensky, the administration put the $400 million in aid for Ukraine on hold. Administration officials were instructed to tell anyone who asked that the delays were part of an "interagency process," but to give no details as to what exactly that means. The $400 million was finally released on September 11, following two months of the never-explained "interagency process."

In addition to the "interagency process," the administration has put forward two other explanations for the delay: (1) that they were trying to figure out if Zelensky is pro-Russian or pro-Western, and (2) that they were nervous that Zelensky is corrupt. Needless to say, the administration's giving three different justifications for their behavior does not give confidence that any of them is actually truthful. It's also worth noting that Zelensky was elected on an anti-Russia, anti-corruption platform (more below), so if those questions were really the issue, it should have taken approximately two minutes to come up with an answer, as opposed to two months.

In any case, it's looking an awful lot like the quid pro quo story is true. In part, because there is now overwhelming circumstantial evidence supporting that version of events. We know that Trump wanted an investigation, we know that he put a hold on the aid; the only remaining question is if the two incidents were related. The very existence of a whistleblower complaint (not to mention Trump's standard M.O.) suggests they were. The administration's dubious explanations for its behavior are not helping Trump's case, either.

Finally, we also knew by the end of this weekend that Team Trump was working very hard to keep the whistleblower complaint from reaching Congress, despite statutes that say that they are entitled to know what's going on. That adds the possibility of obstruction charges to the original, alleged, bad behavior. It also adds weight to the conclusion that something shady took place here. After all, if the administration has nothing to hide, well, why would they be hiding something?

Release the Transcript?

Trump continues to insist that nothing untoward happened, and said that he might just release a transcript of his conversation with Zelensky so that people can see for themselves. "I didn't do it...when you see the call [transcript], you're going to be very surprised," the President declared. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin did the rounds of the various news programs on Sunday and Monday and, putting on their best frowny faces, said they did not think that would be a good idea. National security, you understand.

It strains credulity that the administration has a transcript that completely exonerates Trump. If they did, it would already have been released, and Trump would be on Twitter crowing about the media and its "fake news." So, what is going on here, and why would the President suggest he might just release the transcript? Here are the possible explanations we can think of:

  • Political Theater: This is the most plausible explanation, that Trump is playing "good cop" and Mnuchin/Pompeo are playing "bad cop" so that the President can appear like someone who is innocent and has nothing to hide, without actually having to release any proof of that. Richard Nixon did something similar, appointing special prosecutor Archibald Cox because he hoped that voters would think "A guilty man would never appoint a special prosecutor." It even worked, for a while. Trump is essentially arguing: "I want to release the transcript but those nasty old secretaries won't let me."

  • Ambiguity: The transcript may be open to interpretation, with the quid pro quo arguably present but subtle enough that it's not a slam dunk.

  • Self-Deception: Trump is pretty good at convincing himself of things that aren't actually true. Maybe he believes the transcript is kosher, but everyone else around him recognizes that is not the case.

  • Multiple Transcripts: It could be that there was more than one conversation, and that Trump wants to release a non-damaging transcript (and keep the lid on a damaging one). This would be playing with fire, since if this was the case, and if the truth came to light, it would be devastating.

  • Cooking the Books: Trump might also be planning to issue an edited transcript, excising the problematic parts without telling the public that portions have been removed. This too would be playing with fire, of course. Maybe history will repeat itself and Trump will release the transcripts with an 18-minute gap in the middle.

We shall see what the administration does or does not do, transcript-wise. However, the pressure to release it is getting intense. Not only are Democrats calling for that, but several Republicans have joined the chorus, including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and also Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). It's worth remembering that the final straw for Richard Nixon was when a group of GOP lawmakers, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, went to him and told him they could no longer support him.

Dramatis Personae

At this point, let's talk a little bit about something that tends to get relatively little attention in Whistleblowergate, namely the key Ukrainians involved in the situation. Their names are long and Slavic, so it's not too surprising that they tend to swirl together. Nonetheless, figuring out who's who, and where each player stands, is pretty important:

  • Viktor Yanukovych: The corrupt former president of Ukraine who was thrown out of office after looting the country for millions of dollars. He is a stooge of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and is also close with Rudy Giuliani (and, by extension, Trump). He also did business with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, transactions that were (partly) responsible for Manafort being sent to prison.

  • Viktor Shokin: He is a former Ukrainian prosecutor who was forced out of his job in 2016 thanks to an international effort in which Joe Biden played a leading role. He is close with Giuliani (and Trump) as well, and after he was forced out, he told Giuliani that Biden did this because he (Shokin) was investigating a Ukrainian company that Hunter Biden (Joe's son) was involved with.

  • Yuriy Lutsenko: He replaced Shokin, and proclaimed the story about Hunter Biden to be a lie. However, Lutsenko is also somewhat shady, and he fed Giuliani two other false stories: (1) that Yanukovych's payments to Paul Manafort were funded by...George Soros, and (2) that Barack Obama's ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, had given him (Lutsenko) a list of people not to prosecute. There is zero evidence for false story #1, and the State Department has flatly denied story #2.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky: As noted above, he is the new and current president of Ukraine and was elected on an anti-corruption and anti-Russian platform. He's undoubtedly hostile to the other three gentlemen listed here, and is not too likely to be Trump's and Giuliani's cup of tea, as a result.

In short, it should be clear that Trump and Giuliani are cozying up with people who are not very nice. Or, as the Washington Post headline puts it, "In Ukraine, Trump's allies are corrupt oligarchs and Russian stooges." It should also be clear that the President and his lawyer are buying into obvious falsehoods. Whether they are just naive, or they know these stories are lies and are repeating them anyhow, is known only to them. We have a pretty good guess which it is, however.

The Biden Angle

Even as things seem to grow more grim for Trump, he keeps insisting that the real story here is corruption in the Biden family. In fact, here is the President saying that just a couple of days ago:

Needless to say, the truth is considerably more complicated than that.

To start, the company at the center of all of this is Burisma Holdings, a natural gas concern in Ukraine. That company is owned by a client of Hunter Biden's law firm (former Ukrainian government official Mykola Zlochevsky) and shortly after Biden's colleague and business partner Devon Archer joined Burisma's board, Biden joined the board as well (this was in April 2014). Since Biden had no expertise in the area of natural gas, it was a curious choice, as was his generous compensation package (often as much as $50,000 a month). If all of this seems to have a slightly unsavory odor, well, that's a fair assessment. Not helping things is that Burisma had attracted the attention of government authorities prior to Biden joining the firm, and was under investigation by both the UK and Ukraine when he accepted his seat on the board.

As noted above, Joe Biden enters the story in 2016, while he was vice president. As the Obama administration and much of the international community had concluded that the Ukrainian prosecutor Shokin was rotten to the core, Biden—acting as an envoy for the administration—helped oust him, primarily by threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine as long as Shokin was in place.

At this point, Donald Trump's thought process becomes crystal clear. If Biden was acting with an eye toward helping his son, then he and Trump would have done literally the same thing: used U.S. foreign aid as leverage against Ukraine in exchange for personal concessions. The problem for Trump is that he's relying on a lie that Shokin told to Giuliani, and that is entirely unsupported by evidence. To start, although Shokin's office was technically investigating Burisma in 2014, there was little activity on that front by 2016, and indeed, the British had grown frustrated with what appeared to them to be obstruction, as if Shokin was actually trying to protect the company. On top of that, it wasn't just Joe Biden who thought that Shokin had to go. As Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council explained to the Wall Street Journal, "The whole G-7, the IMF, the EBRD, everybody was united that Shokin must go, and the spokesman for this was Joe Biden." And finally, for the Biden conspiracy to be true, Barack Obama would have to have been a willing participant. This is the same man who ran one of the most remarkably scandal- and corruption-free presidencies in memory.

In summary, one can look askance at Hunter Biden, who may have traded on his familial connections to claim a handsome salary from a shady Ukrainian company. However, there is no evidence that Joe Biden's actions vis-à-vis Shokin were undertaken to help his son, or had any other corrupt intent. In fact, there's an argument that getting rid of Shokin actually put Hunter Biden at greater legal risk, since an honest prosecutor was more likely to turn the screws on Burisma than a dishonest one. That means that if Trump is counting on a defense of "I did the same thing Biden did," then he's really stepped in it.

Meanwhile, there is the question of how this will affect Biden's presidential campaign. The former VP is, of course, mounting a full-court defense, arguing (quite reasonably) that he's done nothing wrong here, and (also pretty reasonably) that this is another case of Trump creating a scandal where none exists, like Hillary Clinton's e-mail. Still, this could hurt him, since the whole matter is rather complicated, and the average voter's takeaway might be something along the lines of "Biden did something dubious in the Ukraine." On the other hand, it could help him, by making him a sympathetic figure, by making Trump look desperate, and by reminding everyone that the President is scared witless of facing off against Uncle Joe. That would certainly bolster Biden's "electability" argument. For what it is worth, several Democratic strategists who talked to The Hill speculated that the whole thing would do Biden more good than harm.

Incidentally, some members of the Team Trump inner circle, including Steve Bannon, have decided that the Ukraine smear has already failed, and they are looking for something new to use against the Bidens. The new target: Hunter's work with one (or more) Chinese firms. Time will tell if they come up with anything, but it's worth pointing out again that the unsavory deeds of the son do not attach to the father.

Time to Impeach?

It is clear that impeachment, whether or not it actually happens, has never had more momentum. Monday began with the publication of a Washington Post op-ed from seven freshman members of Congress—Gil Cisneros (D-CA), Jason Crow (D-CO), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), Elaine Luria (D-VA), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA)—from swing districts (none is more blue than D+2, and most lean Republican), in which they write:

If these allegations are true, we believe these actions represent an impeachable offense. We do not arrive at this conclusion lightly, and we call on our colleagues in Congress to consider the use of all congressional authorities available to us, including the power of "inherent contempt" and impeachment hearings, to address these new allegations, find the truth and protect our national security.

If folks like this—the same kind of folks who were trying to put the brakes on impeachment talk just a week ago—have flipped, that is big trouble for Trump.

In addition to those seven, several other moderate Democratic members of the House conceded that they have begun to seriously consider impeachment. That includes Reps. Dean Phillips (DFL-MN), Angie Craig (DFL-MN), and Debbie Dingell (D-MI). And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) spent Monday working the phones, seeing where her caucus now stands, and potentially preparing to launch a pro-impeachment offensive. She will make a statement sometime this morning, and then will preside over a meeting of her caucus this afternoon. The latest count has 155 Democratic members of the House in favor of impeachment, and only 80 against. It takes 218 to make it happen, so if we include Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI), who has said he's on board, then just 62 of those 80 have to flip.

In addition to the movement in the House, which Politico describes as a "seismic change," a number of high-profile Democrats outside of Congress have also called for a formal impeachment inquiry for the first time. That list includes former VP Al Gore, Democratic strategist James Carville, and former Obama White House aide Chris Lu. That trio was all on the record as opposing impeachment, until Monday.

In the end, it's possible that the blue team will have no choice but to vote for articles of impeachment, regardless of their (likely) fate in the Senate. The criticism being leveled against Republicans is that they will look the other way with any presidential malfeasance in service of their political goals. If the evidence of Trump's guilt in this case grows any stronger, the Democrats would be vulnerable to the same basic charge if they stood by and did nothing.

The Media Response

The media, or a lot of it, at least, was also quite assertive on Monday in its view that the time had come for impeachment. A selection of headlines:

For that last one, we suspect they may not have actually talked to Nixon.

Not everyone in the media is thinking in this way, of course. Politico's Jack Shafer takes the cautious course, with a piece headlined "Why Trump Will Survive Even This." Shafer's argument is that Trump dodges every scandal, so why wouldn't he dance around this one? Maybe so, but it's worth noting that quite a few people—Nixon, Bernie Madoff, Bonnie and Clyde—consistently got away with bad behavior, right up until the time they didn't.

Meanwhile, there are also those Trump supporters who are circling the wagons and claiming that the only bad guys (and gals) here are the Democrats. John Solomon of The Hill published a piece on Monday entitled "Let's get real: Democrats were first to enlist Ukraine in US elections." Solomon is a partisan hack who writes laughably bad conspiracy-theory op-eds, and this one is no exception. Still, it speaks to the whataboutism that we can expect to see from some conservative corners of the media. Ditto Sean Hannity's program on Monday, during which he opined that the "mainstream media mob" did the U.S. a big favor by making Ukraine into a major news story.

What's Next?

Who knows? There are more questions about what happens next than there are answers. Will Trump insist on releasing some sort of transcript? If no, what will his excuse be? If yes, how will that shape this story? Meanwhile, will Pelosi announce that impeachment proceedings are imminent? Very possible? Unlikely? Completely off the table? We will see later today.

It is entirely possible, of course, that this will be yet another situation that heads to court, as the Democrats try to get information, and the administration tries to stonewall them. One would imagine that if a president of the United States is potentially trying to strike deals where he leverages foreign aid/intelligence/whatever else in exchange for dirt on his opponents, the courts would want to fast-track that. But you never know, these days.

There is one wild card, of course, and that is our modern-day Deep Throat. The identity of the whistleblower has not leaked; even Trump doesn't know who it is (which hasn't stopped the President from denigrating that person as disloyal and a partisan operative). Clearly, that whistleblower would prefer to remain unknown, both so they can keep their job, but also for their own safety. That said, if they've already come this far, and it looks like the works have been gummed up by legal maneuvering, they could go fully public. How would it look for, say, a high-ranking member of the CIA to appear on the NBC Evening News to tell the story of how he heard Donald Trump tell Zelensky that with no dirt there would be no aid? The answer: It would look very bad for the President, indeed. (Z)

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