Whistleblower: WH ‘locked down’ Trump-Ukraine call records; US, Iran trade jabs at UN; 100k troops for Afghan elections; Senate votes to end border emergency; And a bit more.
Whistleblower: Trump abused his office to seek personal help; White House tried to cover it up. On Thursday morning, the House Intelligence Committee released a redacted version of the complaint sent Aug. 12, 2019, by a whistleblower in the intelligence community who became concerned that President Trump was allegedly improperly soliciting information and favors from foreign governments to help his 2020 election campaign.
The House also released a seven-page letter from the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. In the Aug. 26 letter, the Trump-appointed Atkinson told Maguire that the whistleblower’s complaint is an “urgent concern” that must be forwarded within three days to Congress.
The whistleblower’s nine-page complaint begins: “In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President's main domestic political rivals. The President's personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.”
On the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “Multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call informed me that, after an initial exchange of pleasantries, the President used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests. Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President's 2020 reelection bid.”
Deeply concerning: “The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call. They told me that there was already a ‘discussion ongoing’ with White House lawyers about how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials' retelling, that they had witnessed the President abuse his office for personal gain.”
Coverup: “In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced—as is customary—by the White House Situation Room. This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”
Files, moved: “White House officials told me that they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to Cabinet-level officials. Instead, the transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature. One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.”
Background: The complaint’s existence was first reported earlier this month, after Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff’s requests to see the memo were rebuffed by the executive branch. Many commentators have noted that the executive branch had no right to withhold the complaint after the intelligence community’s inspector general judged it of sufficient import to pass to Congress.
Released: The complaint was finally handed over this week, after reports broke that Trump had placed a hold on hundreds of millions of dollars of congressionally approved aid to Ukraine as a way to pressure its leader to launch an investigation on one of Trump’s potential 2020 rivals.
Also released yesterday: The White House’s own summary memo (which is not a direct transcript of the call). The memo “shows a commander-in-chief consumed by conspiracy theories, strong-arming a foreign government to help him politically, and marshaling the federal government in his schemes,” wrote The Atlantic’s David Graham.
Conspiracy theorist: In the call, Trump asked Zelensky for help proving a long-debunked conspiracy theory alleging that Russia was not behind various 2016 thefts of Democrats’ emails. D1’s Patrick Tucker explains, here.
Live, now: Schiff and the rest of the House Intelligence Committee are questioning Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire about his handling of the complaint. Watch, here.
From Defense One
Trump Has Approved Arms to Lots of Problematic Regimes Besides Ukraine. Here's The List // Marcus Weisgerber: The president said he withheld military aid for Ukraine over corruption concerns.
Favor #2: Trump Also Asked Ukraine to Revive a Hillary Conspiracy Theory // Patrick Tucker: By mentioning Crowdstrike in the phone call, the U.S. president was trying to get Russia off the hook for the 2016 email hacks.
The US and Iran Are Still Worlds Apart on a Deal // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: At the UN, America and Iran talk at each other and refuse to meet.
Big Tech Bulks Up Its Anti-Extremism Group. But Will It Do More than Talk? // Patrick Tucker: Facebook and others launched GIFCT to stop violent groups from exploiting online platforms.
Ep. 56: 10 trips to Afghanistan, with Kevin Maurer // Defense One Staff: North Carolina-based author Kevin Maurer talks about his latest trip in January, and how some U.S. soldiers derive meaning from the longest conflict in the nation's history.
Trump’s Incriminating Conversation With the Ukrainian President // David A. Graham, The Atlantic: The White House said a transcript of the call would be exculpatory—but the summary it released only adds to the problems facing Trump.
Why America Needs Ukraine // Mike Giglio, The Atlantic: Trump’s push to get Ukraine’s new president to do his political bidding threatens to undermine a key U.S. partnership in countering Russia.
Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Bradley Peniston (above) and Ben Watson (below). If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy debated Vice President Richard M. Nixon on live TV for the first time. Here’s CBS on perhaps the evening’s most important takeaway: “By refusing makeup, Nixon looked pale and unhealthy compared to Kennedy. With the increasing power and pervasiveness of television in America, both appearances and preparation were never again ignored whenever a television camera came within range of a candidate.”
Afghanistan has deployed more than 100,000 troops ahead of this weekend’s national elections, Reuters reports today from Kabul. “Security will be tight as the more than 29,500 polling stations set up in schools, mosques, hospital compounds and district centers.” However, “About 1,500 polling stations will be closed because security forces cannot protect them.”
And on the coalition side, Western officials told Reuters American troops will be “provid[ing] air support for the Afghan forces — to thwart insurgent attacks and ensure safe retrieval of ballot boxes from the stations after the election.”
Traditionally concerning during Afghan elections: "Anyone who votes has their finger marked with indelible ink to prevent them from casting multiple ballots. This can make it risky for voters who return to areas controlled by the Taliban," Reuters writes. "In past elections, the Taliban have beaten or cut off the fingers of some voters."
The Taliban’s warning to Afghans: “We ask fellow countrymen to refrain from venturing out of their homes on this day so that, may Allah forbid, no one is harmed.”
Said one professor in Kabul: “I will vote as it is my duty and my right, but I don’t trust the security arrangement” involving U.S. forces, whose aircraft are believed to have killed at least 30 farmers last week in the country’s east. More here. AP has its own useful preview of the elections here.
AP also spoke with leading presidential challenger and current Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and he’s already alleging “widespread abuses of power by his rival, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani.” Recall that “The two have shared power for the past five years in a so-called unity government cobbled together by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, after the 2014 polls were overwhelmed by allegations of widespread fraud and corruption.”
Injecting some uncertainty into the process, Abdullah2 told AP, “My main concern will be that massively fraudulent elections ... will have an impact on the mentality of the people, on the views of the people, the democratic process, whether it is functioning or not,” he said. “If it is not functioning, what’s the other way to go ahead with your goals?”
What to expect if things run ok on Saturday: 18 “contenders for Afghanistan’s top job are still on the ballot. To win the first round of voting, a candidate needs a 51% majority. With no outright winner, a second round of voting will be held” shortly afterward. More here.
Don’t miss our latest Defense One Radio podcast because it’s all about the past and present of the war in Afghanistan. Journalist Kevin Maurer has visited the country 10 times since 2004. And he joined us this week to talk about what’s changed since then, what’s not, how difficult Gen. Scott Miller’s job is today, economic prospects for locals tomorrow, and how American troops have come to terms with nearly two decades of war.
Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify and more.
The Senate voted, 54-41, to end the emergency declaration at the U.S.-Mexico border that Military Times reports President “Trump used to raid $3.6 billion from military construction projects for the border wall.” The Wednesday decision is the second time lawmakers have tried to end the declaration and get the money back. The first time occurred in March, and Trump vetoed it on the 15th.
The Senate vote, which did not yield a veto-proof majority, MTs writes, “comes after the Pentagon released the list of 127 projects in 23 states and 19 allied countries that were deferred by the administration to devote $3.6 billion to the border wall.”
Republicans who voted to rescind the emergency include “Sens. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee; Roy Blunt, of Missouri; Susan Collins, of Maine; Mike Lee, of Utah; Jerry Moran, of Kansas; Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska; Rand Paul, of Kentucky; Ron Portman, of Ohio; Mitt Romney, of Utah; Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania; and Roger Wicker, of Mississippi.” More here.
The more you know: U.S. wealth and poverty edition. “The gap between the haves and have-nots in the United States grew last year to its highest level in more than 50 years of tracking income inequality,” the Associated Press reports today, citing new Census Bureau data.
Contributing factors: "a slowdown in agricultural trade and manufacturing to wages that haven’t caught up with other forms of income." Said one economist: "The winners tend to be at the top" as "the sustained economic growth from the recession a decade ago has enriched people who own stocks, property and other assets."
States leading the rise in inequality last year: Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, California, Texas and Virginia. But the greatest inequality overall was found in the District of Columbia, New York, Connecticut, Puerto Rico and Louisiana.
Where is life the most economically equal? Utah, Alaska, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. More here.
Another stat about U.S. citizens: “Two-thirds of Americans now have an unfavorable impression of Saudi Arabia,” the Wall Street Journal reports, calling it “the highest percentage the survey group has ever recorded for the kingdom. It is higher now than it was after Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.” More on Riyadh’s so-far-ill-fated efforts at lobbying influencers in Washington, here.
This week in persistent trends: China “is now the second-largest contributor to the U.N. budget,” Axios reported Wednesday, with Beijing money “accounting for 12% of the organization's funding, up from just 1% 20 years ago.”
Worth noting: The U.S. “is still the largest single contributor to U.N. budgets,” Axios writes. But along with China’s steady rise in UN investment, the Trump administration’s transactionalism and disdain for international bodies suggests Beijing is taking “an important step in its maturation as a global power.” More here. Or from Axios’s source for this data, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, here.
Finally today: Belarus is refusing to host a Russian air base, and that’s not sitting well in Moscow, Reuters reports. The background here: “The Kremlin mounted a bid to set up the air base in Belarus in 2015 and hoped it would host Su-27 fighter jets, but the former Soviet republic, which serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO’s east European states, snubbed Moscow,” announcing last year “that it saw no need for a Russian air base, that such a deployment risked exacerbating regional tensions and that the situations in Ukraine and Syria were more deserving of attention.” A bit more, here. Or read this about the spat from 2018 by RFE/RL.
ICYMI: Learn a bit more about Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko in our March podcast about Russia and the future of Europe entitled, “What comes after Putin?”
NEXT STORY: Read the Whistleblower Complaint