I have found myself fascinated by the impeachment scandal currently threatening Trump. A few months ago, I listened to the Slow Burn podcast’s seasons on Watergate and Clinton’s impeachment. Before this, I had only learned about Watergate in history textbooks, and then there was Clinton’s impeachment—I was a child, I was homeschooled, and my family didn’t have a television or listen to news on the radio. I missed the whole thing. This time I’m an adult with children of my own, and I’m paying attention.
Today, as I thought over recent testimony and looked at the dates, I put something together. I think I figured out why the security assistance was ultimately released without Zelensky initiating any investigations, and it doesn’t make Trump look good. In fact, it makes him look like a would-be bank robber who called off a long-planned, carefully designed heist at the last moment after learning that someone tipped off the cops.
Ginning Up Propaganda
Bill Taylor, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified before Congress on Tuesday. During his testimony he talked a lot about conversations he had with Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union. During his testimony, Taylor reported that Sondland told him during a conversation on September 8 that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had agreed to go on CNN and read a prepared statement announcing that the government of Ukraine would be opening investigations into two of Trump’s pet conspiracy theories.
Trump didn’t really want Zelensky to investigate possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election or the Bidens relationship with Burisma—that wasn’t the point. What Trump wanted was propaganda. He wanted his pet conspiracy theories validated by an apparently independent source that he could point to as evidence that these theories weren’t what they are—baseless. That apparently independent source—the Ukrainian president speaking on CNN—would in fact be reading a statement written by Trump’s team, but the American people wouldn’t know that. That’s right—Trump wanted to hoodwink the American people.
On September 8, according to Taylor’s testimony, Zelensky had agreed to do what Trump wanted, because he badly needed the U.S. aid Trump was holding up. Zelensky needed that aid because his country is literally at war with a hostile foreign power that invaded and is occupying 13% of its territory. That would be like someone invading and occupying Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and part of Utah. Getting the U.S. aid released was really really really important to Zelensky, so, according to Taylor, he agreed to go on CNN.
The Con Is Called Off
But then, on September 11, without Zelensky having gone on CNN, the aid was suddenly released. As soon as he learned the aid was released, Taylor says, he went to his contacts in Ukraine, told them the the aid was released, and urged them not to have Zelensky go on CNN, arguing that Ukraine had bipartisan support in the U.S.
It took me a moment, on reading Taylor’s testimony, to understand what he meant. Why bring up Congress’s bipartisan support for Ukraine? Here’s why: the president of Ukraine involving himself in U.S. electoral politics on Trump’s behalf could compromise that bipartisan support in Congress. This matters, a lot. Ukraine is in a tight spot, subject to an invading and occupying army sent by a country with a far superior military. In such a perilous situation, Zelensky desperately needs bipartisan support in the U.S. Trump threatened that.
If you’re suddenly enraged by the spot Trump put Zelensky in, you’re not the only one. I am too.
In the end, Zelensky never did the CNN announcement. According to Taylor, the only reason Zelensky had agreed to do the announcement was to get the aid, and the aid was now released. This begs a question. Why did the White House release the aid without Zelensky having made the announcement? Did they count Zelensky’s promise that he would go on CNN and announce investigations as enough of a guarantee that it would happen? That seems completely at odds with the content of the text messages released last month.
So, what happened? Why was the aid released? I think I figured it out. See, on September 9, the day after the conversation in which Taylor says Sondland told him Zelensky had agreed to go on CNN, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, sent a letter to the House Intelligence Committee notifying them that he had received a whistleblower complaint and that he had found it both urgent and credible.
In other words, the authorities had been tipped off.
The law states that members of the intelligence community are to submit any whistleblower complaints to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Committee, who then has 14 days to investigate and determine whether the matter is of “urgent concern.” The whistleblower complaint, which centered on Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, was filed on August 12. On August 26, Atkinson found that the complaint was of “urgent concern” and “credible” and sent a letter to the Acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire.According to the statute governing these sorts of complaints, Maguire was required by law to forward the complaint to the Congressional intelligence committees within seven days. According to my calendar, seven days from August 26 is September 2. But Maguire did not forward the whistleblower complaint to Congress. Instead, he sat on the complaint, reaching out to the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel for counsel.
A Frantic Few Days
Let’s turn to the timeline. On August 29th, Politico reported that the White House was holding up the Ukraine aid. On September 3, a bipartisan group senators sent the White House a letter urging Trump to release the aid. Things were getting tight for Trump’s shadow operation, but Trump’s cronies didn’t throw in the towel at this point. Instead, they tightened the screws on the Ukrainians, who were now growing increasingly concerned about the aid, which had to be released by the end of September or it would disappear.
According to Taylor, on September 1, Tim Morrison, the top U.S. presidential advisor on Russia and Europe, told a top Zelensky aid that the money would not be released until Zelensky committed to investigate Burisma. That same day, Taylor says he called Sondland and Sondland told him that everything, including the aid, was contingent on Zelensky publicly announcing an investigation into Burisma. This was one day before Maguire was required by law to forward the whistleblower complaint to Congress, a deadline he would miss.
Maguire skipped the September 2 deadline and did not send the whistleblower to Congress. On September 5, Taylor hosted two senators during their visit Ukraine. Taylor testified that, while they were meeting with Zelensky, Zelensky asked them when the security aid would be released. While they assured him that Ukraine had bipartisan support in Congress, without the whistleblower complaint—which they would have received by now had Maguire followed the law—they were in the dark about the game Trump was playing.
As Maguire continued to hold up the whistleblower complaint, Trump continued his con. According to Taylor, on September 7, Morrison told him during a phone call that Sondland had spoken with Trump, and that Trump had insisted that the aid would not be released until Zelensky announced publicly and in front of a microphone that he was launching investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election. Taylor testified that on September 8, Sondland told him that Zelensky had agreed to go on CNN and make the public statement.
A Close Call
At this point, as of September 8, Trump’s con has worked. Zelensky has agreed to read the statement on CNN. This statement, which was composed by Sondland and Kurt Volker in August, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, would announce that Ukraine had opened investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election. Trump has gotten the propaganda he wanted. He’s all set to pull an epic con on the American people.
But then, three days later, on September 11, the aid is suddenly released, and the promised CNN interview never materializes. What happened? From where I’m sitting, the key is Inspector General Atkinson’s decision on September 9 to notify Congress of the whistleblower complaint, going around Maguire’s gag. Looking at the timeline, that’s the only thing that changed between September 8 and September 11. Congress now knew that something was up. And in the House, the Democrats control the committees. They weren’t going to let this go.
The gig was up. The authorities had been tipped off.
A Flawed Defense
One of the Trump team’s primary defensive lines has been that the aid was released without any investigations being launched, which clearly meant—the argument goes— that there was no quid pro quo. But what if the aid was released without any investigations being launched only because the inspector general had notified Congress, which meant that the gig was up? What if the aid wouldn’t have been released without Zelensky announcing investigations if the inspector general hadn’t notified Congress of the whistleblower complaint?
The timeline makes sense, and all the remaining pieces start to fall into place.
Trump came very close to succeeding. If Atkinson hadn’t gone around Maguire to notify Congress that a whistleblower report had been submitted, Trump may well have pulled off his con. The whistleblower wasn’t reporting on an abuse of power that had been committed in the past. The whistleblower was reporting on an abuse of power that was ongoing. And yet, Maguire chose to sit on the whistleblower report, which had the effect of allowing the con to proceed—and proceed it did.
In his testimony, Maguire claimed to have “no situation awareness” regarding the withheld aid during the time he sat on the whistleblower report. Even absent his ability to learn about this through secure channels, Politico reported that the security aid was being held up on August 29, well before Maguire’s missed deadline to submit the whistleblower report to Congress. Since he knew what the report said, you would think he would have been paying enough attention to have caught that. Apparently not.
Maguire chose to sit on the tip regarding an ongoing con rather than passing it on to the relevant authorities so that they could intervene and stop it. Atkinson effectively leaked the tip to the authorities, which in turn led to the con being called off at the last moment. The fact that the con was cancelled at the last possible moment does not exonerate those who spent months putting it together and almost pulled it off.
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