Trump allies jolt into action to deflect Ukraine-whistleblower scandal

By Darren Samuelsohn, Natasha Bertrand and Andrew Desiderio

Here we go again.

President Donald Trump sits at the center of another brewing scandal — this one over his communications with Ukraine’s new president — and his allies are already working to debunk, deflect, deny and ignore.

In this case, the allegation involves a whistleblower complaint, which The Wall Street Journal first reported Friday, that Trump repeatedly pressured his counterpart in Kiev to investigate presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son. The Trump administration is withholding the complaint from Congress, sparking outrage and endless speculation about just what, exactly, Trump might have said.

To the president’s fiercest critics, the situation is already prompting talk of impeachment and even conviction — what if Trump agreed to an illicit quid pro quo with a foreign leader for political gain?

“If this actually happened, @realDonaldTrump should be impeached and removed from office without delay,” George Conway, a conservative attorney and frequent Trump detractor who is married to White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, wrote Thursday on Twitter.

To the president’s defenders, it’s just another case of media bias and an angry anti-Trump cabal inside the government lashing out — what’s the whistleblower’s agenda? And so what if the president pressured foreign leaders to root out potential corruption?

“It looks to me like another deep state attack,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a top Trump booster, said Friday morning on Fox News. “We have seen this over and over and over in this administration from anonymous sources deep inside the bureaucracy.”

Yes, we’ve been here before.

Almost every time a controversy emerges that seemingly imperils Trump’s presidency, the same playbook unfolds. Amid angry calls for impeachment, Trump’s allies largely sidestep a debate over the event itself, cast blame elsewhere and start rationalizing the president’s behavior. Countless times already, it’s worked as an effective counterattack that gives Trump cover as he defends his norm-busting behavior.

“I think we’re seeing a steady arc of removing constraints and institutional norms that continue to erode so that it’s really anything goes as to what he’s willing to say and do to advance whatever grievance he has at the moment,” said Randall Samborn, a former federal prosecutor and spokesman on the George W. Bush-era special counsel investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

“There just don’t seem to be any constraints upon him institutionally or legally or as a matter of political discretion to refrain from doing or saying almost anything,” he added.

One of the biggest frustrations so far stems from the inability to know precisely what’s happened, even as new details are dribbling out in the media.

Trump’s Justice Department is refusing to relay the content of the complaint to Congress — as is normally required by law — prompting Democrats to suggest a cover-up and threaten lawsuits. Others, including Trump defenders, have raised the possibility that the president’s communications are constitutionally protected.

But according to multiple news reports, the president told his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, that relations with the U.S. would improve only if Zelensky ordered an investigation into the Bidens.

Friday’s Wall Street Journal story reports that Trump urged Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to get to the bottom of questions surrounding whether Biden, when he was vice president in the Obama administration protected his son from a probe of his ties to a Ukrainian gas company — allegations that have never been substantiated.

Trump on Friday did not deny that he discussed Biden with a foreign leader and told reporters the allegations against him were lodged by a “partisan” intelligence official, despite acknowledging that he did not know the official’s identity.

Trump also asserted that his exchanges with fellow heads of government are “always appropriate” and that “it doesn’t matter what I discussed,” before going on to say that “somebody ought to look into Joe Biden’s statement” on Ukraine.

Giuliani for months has been calling on Ukrainian investigators to examine the Bidens, and he also has been pressing for a probe into whether the country’s officials played a more sinister role in the 2016 presidential election to undercut Trump.

“That is an astounding scandal of major proportions which all of you have covered up for about five or six months,” the former New York mayor said during a heated CNN interview on Thursday night during which he accused the media of avoiding the story.

In fact, news coverage on the issue has increased in recent months — not all of it positive for Biden, who is the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

The New York Times has documented Giuliani’s interest in getting a Biden investigation launched in Ukraine, and the president’s lawyer went on Fox in May to announce he was canceling a trip to the country where he’d planned to press its new leaders personally for the probe into Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, quoted Ukraine’s prosecutor general that month saying there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the former vice president or his son.

Three powerful Democrat-led House committee have since launched their own investigation into whether Trump and Giuliani have pressured Zelensky and the Ukrainian justice system “in service” of the president’s reelection bid.

Biden on Friday blasted the “clear-cut corruption” at play and called on Trump to immediately release the transcript of the call in question and allow the whistleblower notification to be sent to Congress.

“This behavior is particularly abhorrent because it exploits the foreign policy of our country and undermines our national security for political purposes,” he said in a statement.

The revelation that Ukraine was involved in the whistleblower’s complaint has sparked all manner of reply from Trump allies. One new line of defense to emerge is that the issue is merely a policy dispute.

“Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade, for example, argued on Thursday morning that the complaint boils down to, “do you like the president's policy on Ukraine,” which he called better “than Barack Obama’s policy ... where you just let the Russians steamroll the whole country and give them blankets to help them out.”

But national security lawyers and whistleblower experts say that’s not possible. Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, made a determination that the complaint constitutes an “urgent concern” that falls squarely within his purview.

“There is no way on earth this is just a mere policy dispute,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer who specializes in whistleblower cases. “The statute itself specifically and unequivocally excludes mere differences of opinion on public policy matters. So even if the whistleblower had just been disputing a policy, the inspector general would’ve taken that, reviewed it, and not raised it to the level of urgent concern.”

“The IG has determined, though, that this concerns a real, serious abuse of the law relating to the operation of an intelligence activity,” Moss said.

Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project who focuses on intelligence community and military whistleblowing, agreed, noting that the inspector general has already determined “that this goes far beyond a policy disagreement.”

Still, McCullough acknowledged, the inspector general is now “between a rock and a hard place.” If he went straight to Congress with the substance of the complaint, he could be fired. “But he still needs to retain his independence,” McCullough said. “It’s a completely unprecedented situation.”

On Capitol Hill, Trump’s GOP allies are giving the president cover as House Democrats openly suggest that the withheld whistleblower complaint could be roped into their impeachment efforts.

“I just go back to what we’ve had to endure at the Justice Department, what we’ve had to endure at the FBI with these same sorts of attacks and, frankly, unprecedented resistance measures by bureaucrats to try and stop an elected president from carrying out the policies that the people voted for,” Hawley said on Fox.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) suggested in an interview Thursday on C-SPAN that the entire claim could be fake, pointing to recent reporting about sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh that Republicans have largely dismissed.

And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for his part appeared unaware that the Trump administration was withholding the complaint from the congressional intelligence committees.

“Who is the whistleblower — is he still working? Because I don’t know anything about him,” he told reporters Friday. “I’ve heard rumors it’s somebody who left. Why did he leave? And now this comes up.”

McCarthy also said the whistleblower could have come to Congress to report his or her allegation.

But that would come with its own serious consequences, including potential termination or loss of a security clearance. Whistleblower protection laws allow officials to go straight to the congressional intelligence committees, but once the director of National Intelligence steps in — as acting director Joseph Maguire did — that option is essentially nullified. Those laws are also meant to protect the whistleblower’s or her identity and prevent reprisals.

Democrats, meanwhile, are considering going to court to obtain the whistleblower complaint. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) suggested this week that lawmakers could also withhold funding from the intelligence community in order to put pressure on Maguire.

The whistleblower saga could have serious ramifications for the impeachment debate that has been raging for months inside the House Democratic Caucus. Democrats said the decision to keep Congress in the dark over the whistleblower’s allegations is part of a pattern by the Trump administration to stonewall congressional oversight efforts.

Lawmakers who support impeaching the president have said the continued White House “obstruction” of Congress could be an impeachable offense on its own. Democrats, including Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), have noted several times this week that the third article of impeachment targeting President Richard Nixon centered on obstruction of Congress.

“If the president does not allow the whistleblower complaint against him to be turned over to Congress, we will add it to the articles of impeachment,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of Democratic leadership who sits on the Judiciary Committee.

But Democrats have also struggled to use former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to build public support for impeachment, and the party’s senior leaders — most notably, Speaker Nancy Pelosi — continue to resist it.

Some Democrats argue the whistleblower saga could mark a turning point.

“When you have the president calling in from other countries and whistleblowers are talking about compromising who he has deemed a political enemy, this is serious,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a liberal firebrand who has long supported impeachment. “This is very, very serious.”

Pelosi issued a lengthy statement on the controversy Friday, but notably omitted any mention of impeachment.

“If the president has done what has been alleged,” the California Democrat said, “then he is stepping into a dangerous minefield with serious repercussions for his administration and our democracy.”

Heather Caygle and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.