Unblock whistleblower's complaint on President Donald Trump's call to Ukraine over Biden

The Editorial Board, USA TODAY

Just as the aftershocks of the special counsel's Russia investigation seemed to have settled, the latest tremblor out of the Oval Office is whether the president used the levers of his foreign policy toward Ukraine for political gain.

A confidential whistleblower report might provide an answer. But once again, the nation's grinding democratic processes are falling short of providing Americans what they need to decide whether Donald Trump did something wrong. 

Short of someone violating the law by leaking that whistleblower complaint, or the whistleblower risking retaliation by bravely going to Congress, there's no quick or certain process for the public to learn its contents.

There is, however, a steady drip of news media reports, and a few admissions by Trump himself on Sunday.

According to The Washington Post and The New York Times, a whistleblower complaint filed with the intelligence community's inspector general focused on a promise Trump made during a phone call on July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (This happened to be the day after Robert Mueller's much-anticipated congressional testimony.) During that conversation, Trump asked the Kiev leader to investigate a key political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden's son Hunter, regarding the younger Biden's past business dealings in Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal later buttressed this reporting, revealing that Trump pressed Zelensky about eight times during their call to open the inquiry. 

The presidential seal

VIEWS FROM PRESIDENT TRUMP AND OTHERS: 'The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption'

Still unclear is whether there's any connection between Trump's desire for dirt on the Bidens and $250 million in U.S. military aid for Ukraine, which has been engaged in a five-year civil war with pro-Russian separatists. The aid was inexplicably delayed, then released soon after Congress raised concerns about the whistleblower complaint.

Was a meeting with Zelensky or the promise of Ukrainian assistance somehow, by inference or otherwise, made contingent on Kiev investigating Biden? If true, that would be a gross abuse of presidential power.

Trump acknowledged Sunday that he spoke with Zelensky about a Biden investigation, defending the conversation as appropriate and "perfect." His defenders, meanwhile, fanned out on the morning talk shows to dispense a confusing smokescreen of unproven allegations against the Bidens.

All the while, the unnamed whistleblower's account languishes in the dark. 

The intelligence community's inspector general, Trump appointee Michael Atkinson,  was so troubled by the report that he deemed it of "urgent concern." 

The law requires that an urgent-concern whistleblower complaint "shall" be turned over to Congress. But the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, blocked this. His legal response, supplied by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, is that the alleged target of the complaint — presumably Trump himself — is not a member of the intelligence community, so the urgent-concern requirements for the whistleblower law are not applicable.

That justification is painfully reminiscent of the legal gymnastics Mueller employed when he concluded that he was barred from saying whether Trump broke the law by obstructing justice in the Russian influence investigation, but that he also couldn't "exonerate" him.

A system of checks and balances guaranteed by the Constitution should inform the American people when their president violates the law or commits an impeachable offense. That system is being stretched to the breaking point.

Now it's up to members of Congress — not just Democrats but also Republicans who claim to believe in the rule of law — to get to the bottom of this latest tawdry tale by holding hearings, obtaining transcripts, and finding a way to gain access to the whistleblower complaint or that person's testimony. 

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.


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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: On Trump call to Ukraine over Biden: Unblock whistleblower's complaint