High Stakes Now

Richard Nixon had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in and he was not a crook, and Bill Clinton never had sex with that woman, but Washington doesn’t work that way. Investigative reporters investigate and report. They do that because there’s a market for what they report. Much of the public wants to know what its government is doing. They are paying for that government. Maybe they’re paying far too much, but they did elect these people to keep the nation safe and prosperous, or at least stable if they can’t manage that. These people should do what they’re supposed to do, and Nixon and Clinton didn’t. Something had to be done about that. Nixon was about to be impeached. He couldn’t face that. He resigned. Clinton was impeached by the House, but then tried and acquitted by the Senate. He survived. But things were never the same. Investigative reporters investigate and the stakes got higher. Nothing can stay hidden. What was hidden will not remain hidden. And what was hidden can end everything.

Long ago, the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward dug and dug and reported and reported and then Nixon was gone. That may be happening again, given the Washington Post’s new scoop:

The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

So, what was Trump “promising” to which foreign leader, and what was he to get in return, that so alarmed the intelligence community that one of them actually filed a complaint? No one knows yet:

It was not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver, but his direct involvement in the matter has not been previously disclosed. It raises new questions about the president’s handling of sensitive information and may further strain his relationship with U.S. spy agencies. One former official said the communication was a phone call.

The White House declined to comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a lawyer representing the whistleblower declined to comment.

But no one was denying anything. Bernstein and Woodward called that the “non-denial denial” and that meant it was time to dig deep and find out more about that was going on. No one has denied anything after all. And something is up:

Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson determined that the complaint was credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of “urgent concern,” a legal threshold that ordinarily requires notification of congressional oversight committees.

But acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to share details about Trump’s alleged transgression with lawmakers, touching off a legal and political dispute that has spilled into public and prompted speculation that the spy chief is improperly protecting the president.

Woodward and Bernstein would now have to look into that, and now the mysterious hearings behind closed doors begin:

The dispute is expected to escalate Thursday when Atkinson is scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee in a classified session closed to the public. The hearing is the latest move by committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) to compel U.S. intelligence officials to disclose the full details of the whistleblower complaint to Congress.

Maguire has agreed to testify before the committee next week, according to a statement by Schiff.

That might be closed to the public, but there are a few breadcrumbs to follow:

The complaint was filed with Atkinson’s office on Aug. 12, a date on which Trump was at his golf resort in New Jersey. White House records indicate that Trump had had conversations or interactions with at least five foreign leaders in the preceding five weeks.

Among them was a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the White House initiated on July 31. Trump also received at least two letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during the summer, describing them as “beautiful” messages. In June, Trump said publicly that he was opposed to certain CIA spying operations against North Korea. Referring to a Wall Street Journal report that the agency had recruited Kim’s half-brother, Trump said, “I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices.”

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, as 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? No one knows, but Woodward and Bernstein didn’t know what they would find either, and there is context:

Trump’s handling of classified information has been a source of concern to U.S. intelligence officials since the outset of his presidency. In May 2017, Trump revealed classified information about espionage operations in Syria to senior Russian officials in the Oval Office, disclosures that prompted a scramble among White House officials to contain the potential damage.

But this is a bit different:

The dispute has put Maguire, thrust into the DNI job in an acting capacity with the resignation of Daniel Coats last month, at the center of a politically perilous conflict with constitutional implications.

Schiff has demanded full disclosure of the whistleblower complaint. Maguire has defended his refusal by asserting that the subject of the complaint is beyond his jurisdiction.

Defenders of Maguire disputed that he is subverting legal requirements to protect Trump, saying that he is trapped in a legitimate legal predicament and that he has made his displeasure clear to officials at the Justice Department and White House.

That makes Maguire the hero here. Trump or Attorney General Barr, or both, made Maguire break the law, and he really did complain to them about that, but he did break the law:

After fielding the complaint on Aug. 12, Atkinson submitted it to Maguire two weeks later. By law, Maguire is required to transmit such complaints to Congress within seven days. But in this case, he refrained from doing so after turning for legal guidance to officials at the Justice Department.

In a sign of Atkinson’s discomfort with this situation, the inspector general informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the existence of the whistleblower complaint – without revealing its substance – in early September.

That makes Atkinson the hero here. He spilled the beans. He told Adam Schiff that Trump and Barr and a reluctant Maguire were hiding something rather awful, illegally. Atkinson had no authority to say what that was. That wasn’t his job. But that was Maguire’s job. And thus he screwed Maguire, because he was angry – and patriotic. This was about something like betraying the country. And this was the president.

Woodward and Bernstein would have loved this, but Kevin Drum hates this:

I can’t tell you how much I would like to never write or hear the name Trump ever again. I mean, an intelligence official filing a whistleblower complaint against the president? That’s insane. And yet, here we are.

That sounds like despair, but Josh Marshall decided to be methodical:

Obviously, anyone in the government can file a whistleblower complaint. They can be frivolous or nonsensical. But the Inspector General determined it was serious and of a pressing nature. Atkinson was nominated to the position by President Trump in 2018 but he appears to be a career government lawyer. He worked at DOJ for 15 years prior to his nomination.

The decision to withhold the information from Congress was made by acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who’s in that position after the dismissal of Dan Coats. But the Post suggests that it’s not actually Maguire’s choice. The Department of Justice told him to withhold the information from Congress.

It appears that in the guise of legal guidance the DOJ instructed Maguire not to share the complaint with Congress. Atkinson took matters into his own hands, informing Congress of the existence of a complaint while not sharing its substance, in deference to the DOJ’s legal guidance.

And that’s the problem:

Bill Barr runs the Justice Department. He protects Donald Trump. Period. So the DOJ’s role here is little mystery.

But there’s more to that:

It is worth noting here that this is a case in which there are legitimate constitutional issues. When it comes to classified information, the whole system is a bureaucratic system to operationalize judgments which are nominally the President’s. That’s why the President can actually declassify information by the very act of sharing them. It was his decision to make them secrets in the first place. He’s just changing his mind. Those who believe in maximal presidential power think the President’s authority is basically unconstrained dealing with foreign leaders.

Bill Barr is one of those people. And he also wants to protect Trump from the rule of law. So Barr’s jurisprudence and personal corruption point in the same direction.

And then there’s the mystery. Woodward and Bernstein had “Deep Throat” on the inside pointing them in the right direction and that may be happening here too:

The Post article is sourced to “two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.” That’s odd. This only happened about a month ago. Former officials shouldn’t really know anything about this unless somehow they were in the loop and retired like last week or something. That’s not totally implausible as people seem to be being pushed out of the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] in the wake of Coats’ departure. But it sounds (and this is just speculation based on news experience) that this information is being pushed out into the public realm using ex-officials as intermediaries. In other words, people on the inside think something is wrong and they’re using go-betweens with high level clearances to get the information public. Again, this last point is speculation. But I think it’s a logical surmise.

It sounds like something pretty serious is up here.

That’s what Woodward and Bernstein thought too. But lots of big things are going on:

Tensions between the United States and Iran ratcheted up Wednesday as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decried the weekend attacks on the Saudi oil industry as an “act of war” and President Trump ordered a substantial increase in sanctions against the government in Tehran.

With the Trump administration linking the sanctions step to the airstrikes, Iran warned the United States that it would retaliate for any attack against it, Iranian news agencies reported Wednesday. An attack on Iranian territory would be met with a “rapid and crushing” response, the Fars News Agency said.

Five days after the strikes on Saudi oil facilities, which were claimed by a Yemeni rebel group, U.S. and Saudi officials all but explicitly accused Iran of launching the attacks from its territory. They presented physical evidence and other details that they said bolstered their assertions of direct Iranian culpability.

So this is war, but Pompeo didn’t say that this is our war against Iran now. But he didn’t say this was the Saudi’s war either, or that we’d wage war against Iran with the Saudis, alongside them, or we wage war for the Saudis so none of them would get hurt. His was more of a general observation. This was war of some kind. But things were murky:

The initial claim of responsibility for the weekend attacks by the Iranian-allied rebels, known as the Houthis, “doesn’t change the fingerprints of the ayatollah as having put at risk the global energy supply,” Pompeo told reporters, in an apparent reference to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, while traveling to Saudi Arabia. His comments set the tone for a day of developments that raised temperatures across the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. and Saudi governments have yet to provide solid evidence of where the attacks originated. In the absence of such proof, Iran has forcefully pushed back against the accusations and warned of consequences if it is attacked.

And then it was time for bluster:

The day’s first salvo came from President Trump, who wrote in a tweet that he had “just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!” He later told reporters traveling with him in California that “very significant” sanctions would be announced “over the next 48 hours.”

Trump warned of “a very powerful attack” against Iran Wednesday afternoon as he toured the U.S.-Mexico border in Otay Mesa, Calif., near San Diego. He said his plans are “very fluid” and that “a lot of things can happen – rough things and not so rough things.”

Trump told reporters he was being judicious in evaluating whether to respond with military force. “We are doing it the right way,” he said. “We’re doing it the smart way. We will see what we will see.”

But, the president added, “One call and we can go in.”

Or we may not, and there was a response:

Iran delivered its warning to the United States via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which handles U.S. affairs in Iran. The official message condemned remarks by Pompeo and other officials linking Iran to the attacks.

“Iran’s response will be prompt and strong, and it may include broader areas than the source of attacks,” the Mehr News Agency reported the official note as saying.

Iran’s Fars News Agency said any response to an attack would target “more extensive areas than the origin of the attack.” There have long been fears that Iranian proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere might attack U.S. forces in the region.

And then they pulled a fast one:

The Iranian mission to the United Nations declined to comment on Trump’s tweet but a spokesman repeated an assertion that “the U.S. economic terrorism is illegal.”

Iran considers U.S. sanctions to violate the U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal, which was signed between Iran and world powers, including the United States but which the United States has disavowed under Trump.

That was not nice. That was a reminder that the whole world thinks Trump is a dangerous fool, and Max Boot argues that he is:

Trump said he was “locked and loaded” for a response, but rather than hitting back militarily, he has (so far at least) merely chosen to order more sanctions. It’s hard to imagine the mullahs will be impressed given how many sanctions the United States has already piled on as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy. Is this the supermax policy?

This is not an argument for attacking Iran – which Trump might still do. A small U.S. airstrike won’t deter Iran – and a big one risks a major conflict. That’s why I thought it was a mistake to leave a nuclear accord that Iran was abiding by – and why I think it’s imperative to rejoin if possible. Most experts feared Trump’s move to leave the nuclear deal would only embolden Iranian hard-liners who never liked the deal in the first place – and that is precisely what has happened.

This was predictable, and really did make things worse:

Rather than decrease the danger from Iran, Trump has turbocharged it. Iran is enriching more uranium and still supporting brutal proxies. Either Iran or its Houthi allies – the difference is cosmetic – are responsible for a long series of missile attacks on Saudi airports and oil infrastructure. These attacks are, at least in part, retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s unsuccessful and unconscionable war in Yemen. But that doesn’t change the fact that Iran is almost certainly guilty of cross-border aggression – an “act of war,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, and all the more so if, as leaks from the U.S. government claim, the latest attack was launched directly from Iranian soil.

Iran is practically daring Trump to retaliate – but having goaded Iran into the latest round of aggression, he is incapable of formulating an effective response.

And of course everyone knows why:

Trump doesn’t listen to his own aides and gets rid of those who disagree with him – hence the ouster of John Bolton as national security adviser and his replacement with Robert C. O’Brien – a presidential envoy whose claim to fame is observing the trial of A$AP Rocky in Sweden. His chief qualification seems to be his willingness to flatter Trump.

Bolton shredded the national security decision-making process, and it’s unlikely O’Brien will revive it, because Trump is averse to regimentation. He thinks he has all the answers (Trump said the job of the national security adviser is “easy” because “I make all the decisions”), and he won’t listen to information that contradicts his preconceptions. He dismissed intelligence-community assessments that Iran was abiding by the nuclear accord even as he now cites the intelligence community to blame Iran for attacks in the region.

In the summer, Trump tried to assemble a coalition to safeguard shipping in the Persian Gulf. He largely failed because most of our allies don’t want to be dragged into a war with Iran and don’t have any faith in Trump. Even the United Arab Emirates is bailing out of the anti-Iran coalition – it is scaling back its involvement in the war in Yemen and entering into talks with Iran over maritime security. Trump is left with only one ally – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – and even he so far shies away from a direct confrontation with Iran.

So we are left with this:

Trump could not be doing more damage to U.S. standing and security if he tried. For the record, I don’t think his epic failure is dictated from Moscow. He simply doesn’t know what he is doing. He doesn’t think before he acts – or tweets. He makes threats that he can’t – and shouldn’t – back up. He bullies the weak but cowers before the strong.

“Iranian hard-liners consider Trump’s inconsistency to be weakness,” Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history, told the New York Times.

The Iranian hard-liners are right: Trump is weakening the United States with his incoherent foreign policy. Our enemies don’t fear us, and our allies don’t trust us.

And there’s an intelligence official filing a whistleblower complaint against the president. Yes, that’s insane. And yet, here we are. And the stakes keep getting higher.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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