Quid Pro Quo?: Why The Whistleblower Complaint Is Such A Big Deal

Amid Trump's effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, a whistleblower's complaint could spark the biggest corruption scandal of Trump's presidency.
President Trump (AP), Trump's Personal Lawyer Rudy Giuliani (Gage Skidmore/Flickr), and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Vadim Chuprina)

President Trump (AP), Trump’s Personal Lawyer Rudy Giuliani (Gage Skidmore/Flickr), and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Vadim Chuprina)

Updated September 20, 2019: Both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have reported that President Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden. WSJ says it was eight times in the July 25th phone call.

The Lede

This week, we finally gleaned insight into the whistleblower complaint that has captured the imagination and concerns of Washington. On Wednesday night, The Washington Post sent a jolt through the country when they reported that on August 12th, a whistleblower filed a complaint with the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General, Michael Atkinson.

The information we learned initially about what is inside the complaint was vague, indicating it concerned a “promise” made by President Trump to a foreign leader. The New York Times later reported that it was actually concerning “multiple acts” by Trump. But on Thursday, The Washington Post reported (The New York Times and ABC News also confirmed) some damning specifics:

A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.

The complaint involved communications with a foreign leader and a “promise” that Trump made, which was so alarming that a U.S. intelligence official who had worked at the White House went to the inspector general of the intelligence community, two former U.S. officials said.

Two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and political newcomer who was elected in a landslide in May.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) has been making efforts to see the details of the whistleblower complaint for quite some time. On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee was briefed on this matter by Atkinson, but he said he was not authorized to speak in detail. Atkinson had previously sent the complaint, which Atkinson deemed “urgent,” to the acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) who sought guidance from the Justice Department. The Justice Department prevented the complaint from being disclosed to the House Intelligence Committee, even though it’s required to be by law.

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Why is the Trump Administration so hell-bent on keeping this secret? Because on the call in question, Trump may have made a request for Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election in exchange for improved relations with the US. The Independent reported:

The house committees’ chairs say they will scrutinise a telephone call between the US president and Mr Zelensky on 25 July, during which Mr Trump allegedly told the Ukrainian president to reopen the Biden investigation if he wanted to improve relations with the US.

ABC News confirmed a readout of the call pertained to the investigation:

A more extensive readout from the Ukrainian president’s office, however, noted that the two also spoke about “investigations into corruption cases that have hampered interaction between Ukraine and the U.S.A.”

It has yet to be confirmed that the quid pro quo was the nature of the call, but if it was, it would be more damning than anything in the Mueller report.

The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight Committees are currently investigating this. This call would be corrupt on its own, but what makes it worse is the fact it fits within the Trump Administration’s broader effort to push the Ukrainian government to pursue an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the current frontrunner in the Democratic primary, and his son.

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The Context

This all started in May, when Rudy Giuliani, with the full support of President Trump, announced that he was traveling to Ukraine to meet with the then-comedian turned President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky to try and get them to probe Joe Biden and his son.

In an interview with The New York Times, Giuliani attempted to claim this conduct was completely fine:

“We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do. There’s nothing illegal about it. Somebody could say it’s improper. And this isn’t foreign policy — I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

This trip was canceled soon after, but there was another development over the Summer that showed the effort was ongoing. In August, NBC News reported that Giuliani was able to secure meetings with a Ukrainian official and it was aided by the State Department:

Specifically, Giuliani has wanted Ukrainian officials to look into any impropriety related to the former vice president’s push to crack down on corruption in Ukraine and his son Hunter Biden’s involvement in a natural gas company there. Giuliani also sought to have Ukraine examine whether the Democratic National Committee worked in connection with Ukrainian officials to harm Trump’s 2016 campaign by releasing damaging information on the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Giuliani has spoken with Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak, a lawyer and close ally of recently elected President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the phone and in an in-person meeting in Madrid over the last few weeks to encourage him to ramp up probes into the matters, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Trump’s attorney confirmed to NBC News that the State Department helped put him in touch with Yermak.

After this, President Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine. Many assumed it was the latest example of Trump doing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bidding. It appears that is not the case. This move was reportedly tied to Trump’s effort to get the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden. The Washington Post reported:

Not only has Mr. Trump refused to grant the Ukrainian leader [President Volodymyr Zelensky] a White House visit, but also he has suspended the delivery of $250 million in U.S. military aid to a country still fighting Russian aggression in its eastern provinces.

Some suspect Mr. Trump is once again catering to Mr. Putin, who is dedicated to undermining Ukrainian democracy and independence. But we’re reliably told that the president has a second and more venal agenda: He is attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.

The Trump Administration later reinstated the aid.

On Thursday night, Rudy Giuliani went on CNN and further confirmed this entire endeavor.

The Analysis

This is all exactly what it sounds like. The President of the United States, his personal attorney, and the United States Government have been actively and publicly pressuring a foreign power to dig up dirt on a political opponent and interfere in American democracy.

President has welcomed foreign interference throughout his administration, and during his campaign. And in spite of the over 100 pages of collusion evidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Trump avoided a criminal conspiracy charge. But if this whistleblower compliant contains the President seeking a quid pro quo with Ukraine, that may change.

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News // Corruption / Donald Trump / Rudy Giuliani / Ukraine