So, did Trump promise Kim that he’d stop all spying of any kind on North Korea forever, and if so, in exchange for what? Did he promise Putin that we’d pull out of NATO so Putin could have all those countries back, the former Russian satellites, in exchange for permission to build that new Trump Tower right in the middle of Moscow and get three hundred million dollars a year in licensing fees? Or did Trump promise Putin something else, the names of our agents embedded in his government, an NHL hockey team, or Hillary Clinton’s head on a platter?
No one knew, and then they did:
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.
But this wasn’t treason, just wheeling and dealing:
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.
That call is already under investigation by House Democrats who are examining whether Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani sought to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping Trump’s reelection campaign. Lawmakers have demanded a full transcript and a list of participants on the call.
So that was the “promise” in question. Trump told Zelensky that yes, Congress has appropriated a whole lot of money, for arms and technology, to help Ukraine hold off the slow Russian invasion and occupation of his country, and he was required, by law, to distribute that money to Zelensky, but Zelensky wasn’t going to see a dime of that money, unless Zelensky helped him ruin Joe Biden’s chances of getting the Democratic Party’s nomination next year. So, if Zelensky would do that, Trump “promised” him he’d release the funds.
That would go something like this: Get me dirt on Biden – on his son, actually – and I’ll let you have the funds that Congress appropriated. If not, you’ll soon be defenseless and Putin will assimilate Ukraine into Russia easily enough. I don’t have to do what Congress says, and you know it. Putin and I agree on everything, and you know that too – so destroy Biden and I promise I’ll release the funds.
That’s the new hypothesis. That must be what Trump said in what now seems to have been multiple phone calls with Zelensky, and someone thought that was improper. Congress approved the funding. Trump decided he would not do what Congress had mandated. Or, more precisely, he’d do what Congress wanted if and only if Zelensky destroyed Biden. Trump wanted something out of this, for him and for him alone. Trump is a clever man. But this may be illegal. Someone will have to look that up. This is new.
But there’s a minor matter that should be mentioned. As a builder, Trump seldom paid his vendors. He told them that if they wanted their money they could sue him, but he had a massive legal team and he could bankrupt them with just their legal costs, and he’d make sure their legal costs were astronomical. They had to back off, muttering but powerless, and unpaid. Zelensky should be wary of Trump’s promises. Trump may never release those funds. They can be used to build his wall. And what’s Congress going to do about that, pout, hold their breath until they turn blue?
But all that is speculation:
The Democrats’ investigation was launched earlier this month, before revelations that an intelligence official had lodged a complaint with the inspector general. On Thursday, the inspector general testified behind closed doors to members of the House Intelligence Committee about the whistleblower’s complaint. Over the course of three hours, Michael Atkinson repeatedly declined to discuss with members the content of the complaint, saying he was not authorized to do so.
That means that no one knows anything. Those two people familiar with the matter, who spoke to the Washington Post, may be blowing smoke to cover up something else, so no one was happy:
Atkinson told the committee that the complaint did not stem from just one conversation, according to two people familiar with his testimony.
Following the meeting, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the committee, warned of legal action if intelligence officials did not share the whistleblower complaint.
Schiff isn’t buying any story now, because this is about process and playing by the rules:
Schiff described acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire’s refusal to share the complaint with Congress as “unprecedented” and said he understood the Justice Department was involved in that decision.
“We cannot get an answer to the question about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress,” Schiff said, adding: “We’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is to make sure that the national security is protected.”
Someone, Schiff said, “is trying to manipulate the system to keep information about an urgent matter from the Congress… There certainly are a lot of indications that it was someone at a higher pay grade than the director of national intelligence.”
Schiff doesn’t mention Ukraine. That inspector general said this was an urgent matter of national security. By law, Congress, specifically his committee, must be informed about what the hell is going on, within seven days, and Trump and Barr and Maguire said that’s nice, but they’re not going to tell him or anyone else in Congress what’s going on – and no one can make them. Schiff says watch, just watch. They WILL report on this matter!
Schiff may be right, but something is up with Ukraine:
In letters to the White House and State Department, top Democrats earlier this month demanded records related to what they say are Trump and Giuliani’s efforts “to coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity” – one to help Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is in prison for illegal lobbying and financial fraud, and a second to target the son of former vice president Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump.
“As the 2020 election draws closer, President Trump and his personal attorney appear to have increased pressure on the Ukrainian government and its justice system in service of President Trump’s reelection campaign, and the White House and the State Department may be abetting this scheme,” the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees wrote, citing media reports that Trump had threatened to withhold $250 million in aid to help Ukraine in its ongoing struggle against Russian-backed separatists.
Lawmakers also became aware in August that the Trump administration may be trying to stop the aid from reaching Ukraine, according to a congressional official.
And now it all fits together:
House Democrats are looking into whether Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure that government outside of formal diplomatic channels to effectively help the Trump reelection effort by investigating Hunter Biden about his time on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
Did that start all this? The New York Times adds more:
Though it is not clear how Ukraine fits into the allegation, questions have already emerged about Mr. Trump’s dealings with its government. In late July, he told the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, that Ukraine could improve its reputation and its “interaction” with the United States by investigating corruption, according to a Ukrainian government summary of the call. Some of Mr. Trump’s close allies were also urging the Ukrainian government to investigate matters that could hurt the president’s political rivals, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family.
Why shouldn’t someone seeking the presidency, for another term in this case, ask a foreign government for help in our next presidential election? And what is wrong with threatening them, or bribing them, to get their direct help? Rudy has no problem with that:
According to government officials who handle foreign policy in the United States and Ukraine, Mr. Giuliani’s efforts created the impression that the Trump administration’s willingness to back Mr. Zelensky was linked to his government’s readiness to in turn pursue the investigations sought by Mr. Trump’s allies.
Mr. Giuliani said he did not know whether Mr. Trump discussed those matters with Mr. Zelensky, but argued it would not be inappropriate.
The president has the right to tell another country’s leader to investigate corruption, particularly if it “bleeds over” into the United States, Mr. Giuliani said on Thursday. “If I were president, I would say that,” he added.
And after all, Rudy is not asking big bad Russia for direct help in an upcoming election here. Rudy is asking dinky little Ukraine for direct help in an upcoming election here. This is no big deal. Think about it. Putin is a brutal ex-KGB agent who has his opponents murdered and grabs other countries left and right. Volodymyr Zelensky is a comedian, a comic. Ukraine elected Jay Leno to run their country. He doesn’t even know how he got elected. He’s faking it. He doesn’t even know the basic rules in these matters.
On the other hand:
Mr. Trump regularly speaks with foreign leaders and is often unfettered. Some current and former officials said that what an intelligence official took to be a troubling commitment could have been an innocuous comment.
But that’s hard to judge:
Mr. Trump’s calls with other leaders are unlike anything his predecessors engaged in, one European diplomat said. The president eschews the kind of structured calls of his predecessors and instead quickly moves from the stated topic of the call to others. He will disclose his ideas for forthcoming summit meetings and test ideas and policies in a seemingly casual way, the diplomat said.
But the whistle-blower complaint renewed questions about whether some of his freelance proposals were inappropriate. The accusation, even with few details, quickly gained traction in part because of longstanding concerns among some intelligence officials that the information they share with the president is being politicized.
There are rules about that, but this is a special circumstance. This is something new. Politico’s Nancy Cook explains why:
The China trade war, talks with the Taliban, the response to Iran after Saudi attacks, gun control, new tax legislation and a long list of other policy issues are up in the air and awaiting decisions from President Donald Trump – and him alone – heading into the 2020 election season.
In many ways, it’s the presidency Trump has always wanted.
He’s at the center of the action. He’s fully in command. And he’s keeping world leaders on edge and unsure of his next moves, all without being hemmed in by aides or the traditional strictures of a White House.
In short, he has become everything:
After four national security advisers, three chiefs of staff, three directors of oval office operations and five communications directors, the president is now finding the White House finally functions in a way that fits his personality. Trump doubters have largely been ousted, leaving supporters to cheer him on and execute his directives with fewer constraints than ever before.
“It is a government of one in the same way in which the Trump Organization was a company of one,” said a former senior administration official.
So the transformation of the nature of the presidency is complete:
“In the first year in office, President Trump was new to the job. He was more susceptible to advisers and advice. There were more people urging caution or trying to get him to adhere to processes,” the former senior official added. “Now, there are very few people in the White House who view that as their role, or as something they want to try to do, or who even have a relationship with him.”
This Presidency of One is now heading into an election year supported by campaign staffers and White House aides who are quick say Trump is the best political strategist as well as the most effective messenger, and they intend to follow his lead wherever 2020 goes.
But of course there was a price to pay for this:
The transformation of the Trump White House, from its early attempts at a traditional structure to its current freewheeling style, has exacted a heavy toll on his staff. But a steady stream of departures – the highest senior staff turnover of any recent president by far – has also left fewer forces trying to bend the president to the usual process of the top ranks of government.
But let them go, because no one needs any of those people anyway:
“It’s very easy, actually, to work with me. You know why it’s easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don’t have to work,” Trump told reporters last Friday as he explained why being his national security adviser, in his mind, is now a low-key post.
He’s saying he needs no one at all around him, really, but that might not be so:
There is little policy process left as the White House faces consequential decisions on Iran, North Korea, China, trade and the economy, even as the president intends to use the economy as a major selling point for his reelection bid.
“You can’t just turn the economy on and off. These are big, slow-moving machines. And he’s operating under this major fallacy that he can keep telling the market things, and they will keep believing him on China or whatever else,” said one adviser close to the White House. “And that he can just all of a sudden turn things around with a China deal or whatever it is and it doesn’t work that way.”
That is a problem, but there are other problems:
In addition to the president’s relative isolation, he and the administration face several challenges this fall over which Trump does not have total control, including foreign policy challenges such as Iran, China or North Korea, ongoing risks to the economy, passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement or potential congressional action on gun control.
This uncertainty might not sit well with a president who has said he likes to make all the decisions, says Timothy O’Brien, the author of “TrumpNation.”
Whatever actions he does take now will also become part of his record heading into the election. “He will have to answer specific questions about that report card, and he will be frustrated by those,” O’Brien added.
But he will whine and say he’s being treated unfairly by the disgusting media or the disgusting Fed chair or our disgusting allies, or the dog ate his homework, or something. He was the victim. He’s always the victim. His base agrees and loves him all the more. They’re victims too. They’ve got a self-reinforcing perpetual feedback loop there. O’Brien seems to think those outside that loop will be a problem for Trump, because they’ll ask for explanations. And they vote.
Donald Trump is ignoring that:
Now the White House runs as he prefers, with him at the center of the action – speaking directly to reporters from the Oval Office, breaking his own news and laying out policy decisions by tweet.
“This is now more of a government built on the basis of Trump’s reactions to things,” said one of the former senior administration officials.
But that is why he’s in real trouble now. Asking any foreign government for direct help in an upcoming election here is quite illegal, and might seem like treason in some way. It does seem like Trump and Rudy think that they need the help of foreigners, because they think that our folks here are too stupid to do the right thing on their own. Okay, that’s not treason. That’s just a deep insult. But that will do.
That is insulting but Trump doesn’t care. He does what he does, as a government of one, but the New York Times’ Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman point out that that’s self-defeating:
Speaking to a Fox News reporter near the Mexican border on Wednesday, President Trump seemed taken aback when asked if the White House was preparing to roll out gun control proposals the next day, a timeline administration officials had suggested was likely.
“No, we’re not moving on anything,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re going very slowly in one way because we want to make sure it’s right.”
The result is that almost two months after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio, when Mr. Trump said he wanted to pass “very meaningful background checks,” warnings from gun rights advocates and Republican lawmakers about the political blowback that would result from doing that have led to indecision about what to do and what the time frame is for sharing it.
But idling in neutral is not something the president is doing only on guns. In discussions with his staff, Mr. Trump has made clear he wants to accomplish something big, but seems stymied as to what it might be, according to interviews with a half-dozen aides and advisers. In the meantime, he has remained on the sidelines as divisive issues are debated and is treading water even on possible staff changes he wants to make, for fear of how things “play.”
That’s the problem with being a government of one. You’ll be the only one to blame. The only thing to do is to do next to nothing:
On the international stage, Mr. Trump has seemed most conflicted about how to respond to Iran’s attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, threatening to order “the ultimate option” one moment, and then warning that getting involved in Middle East wars was a mistake the next.
And the lack of direction is apparent even in the message he delivers at his campaign rallies. With little in the way of policy proposals or a larger vision, he has been telling crowds from New Hampshire to South Carolina, “You have no choice but to vote for me,” and has been promoting his new slogan, “Keep America Great.”
On guns, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has made it clear he will not take any action until the White House does. “If the president is in favor of a number of things that he has discussed openly and publicly, and I know that if we pass it, it will become law, I’ll put it on the floor,” he said this month.
Everyone is waiting. Don’t screw up. Better yet, punt:
When William P. Barr, the attorney general, and Eric Ueland, the White House legislative director, met with Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, distributing a plan to expand background checks, he did so with the blessing of the White House, according to people briefed on what took place. But White House communications officials immediately distanced the president from what they described as a “test run” on a proposal they expected would meet resistance and ultimately convinced Mr. Barr, who some Trump aides view as overly aggressive, that the plan was a nonstarter.
“The president has not signed off on anything yet,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. Of the plan that was being distributed by a White House staff member and a senior administration official, he said, “This is not a White House document, and any suggestion to the contrary is completely false.”
What? Well, there’s only one reason for this:
Despite wanting to give the impression that he is decisive, said one person close to Mr. Trump, part of his holdup is that the president constantly changes his mind and equivocates. While Mr. Trump often worries about how his decisions will play, he is also anxious about other people making decisions for him.
He’s in a bind. He will not screw up! He needs more time! But then someone else might decide things without him! But that would make them more important that he is! That cannot be allowed to happen! He must block them! He must humiliate them! Maybe he should sue them…
That means nothing much gets done. That’s what happens with a government of one. That’s why we’ve never had one, until now. And now we have to decide what to do about that.