The widening scandal surrounding Team Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Bill Barr

The widening scandal surrounding Team Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Bill Barr
Image via CNN Screengrab

New release of an explosive whistleblower report and corroborating Congressional testimony by Joseph Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence filled in a lot of the blank spots in the dramatic series of events being cited as a reason for the impeachment of Donald Trump.

Still, what the twin eruptions of information did was to detail the need to ask yet more questions in a widening scandal surrounding Team Trump, now seeming to involve both Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, and Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, whose role was noted, but never really explained.

Together, the report and testimony bolster the ideas that the anonymous complaint indeed reflected abuse of power in the Oval Office, and underscored the various means by which the president’s team took pains to try to keep conversations quiet that amounted to demanding foreign help towards the Trump reelection effort by dirtying Democratic opponent Joe Biden.

Despite Trump, having acknowledged perfectly friendly and innocent conversations in which that yes, he reached out to a foreign power, Ukraine, to reopen a moribund investigation against Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, now seems increasingly tripped up by the release of the documents in the case.

Trump’s anger level was on 11 as he discussed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats dramatically declaring that the unasked, unanswered questions we’re about to hear are already pointing towards impeachment.

Military Aid Held Hostage

We’ve even had confirmation that military aid money voted by Congress for Ukraine had been withheld, that the White House was declassifying and making available a summary of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and that, for once, there were even talks about letting the whistleblower who started this current impeachment fervor by an official complaint through normal channels to be able to speak directly to congressional investigators.

In short, we have elements for a showdown in a quickly moving drama.

The whistleblower complaint said that the White House attempted to “lockdown” all records of the call, in particular, its “official word-for-word transcript,” using a separate system reserved for classified information that is especially sensitive to house the transcript. These were actions that the whistle-blower suggested showed that those involved “understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”

Maguire, the intelligence director, said the whistleblower “acted in good faith” but explained his own delays in sharing the complaint with Congress by calling the incidents “unique and unprecedented.” Maguire declined to say whether he discussed with the president any decision to hold off on forwarding the complaint to Congress and consulting Justice instead. Justice ruled that he needn’t share the complaint with Congress, as well as deciding that there was no breach of federal campaign finance laws.

Nevertheless, we still have an unfinished puzzle. We have the frame, the stage, the formality of it all, but not the starter gun. We even have the probable last act, in which, after all impeachment proceedings are defined and honed, the Senate Republicans decide just to look the other way, and let the president stay in office.

As things stand going into this deadline day, the White House is offering cooperation on those details that it believes are to its advantage.

Other developments yesterday proved that little ahead is going to be straightforward:

  • The summary promised to Congress apparently was read first to Rudy Giuliani, he told Fox & Friends, who found nothing wrong in it, naturally. But Trump actually urged Zelensky to contact Atty. Gen. William P. Barr and Giuliani about opening a potential corruption investigation connected to Biden, according to the released document, as well as pressing new investigation involving former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Zelensky said he would try to cooperate. A plea from Zelensky for defensive weapons is followed by Trump asking for the favor of looking into the Bidens.
  • Trump and Zalensky met face to face at the United Nations yesterday in a friendly encounter, in which Zalensky thanked Trump for weapons support, deferred from involvement in the Biden question, before Trump took over and turned it into a stump speech about witch hunts.
  • The Washington Post reported that intelligence officials referred these matters to the Justice Department as a possible crime, but prosecutors concluded last week that the conduct was not criminal, according to senior Justice Department officials. Separately, there were calls for Barr to recuse himself from the many legal disputes to come in this case.
  • House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, D-CA, promised the whistleblower anonymity and protection to offer testimony, but that was subject to negotiation with a White House bent on stopping it. Schiff also said Trump acted like a Mob boss.

We can be thankful for a few of the developments to date:

A Hero

The whistleblower, whoever he or she is, showed bravado and courage in outlining a case of presidential overreach – all at personal risk. This person is a hero.

The House Democrats actually look as if they finally are moving, after months of saying that they were moving, to consider impeachment, still a rarity in our constitutional government. They will need to steel their resolve for the next immediate chapters which require defining – and then persuading – what actual bad presidential acts are considered unconstitutional. Focusing on this Ukraine pressure incident alone is cleaner, but may run into a there-is-nothing-illegal-here defense. Pelosi’s declaration, which must be ratified in a House vote in which 218 Democratic votes are assured as a majority, is supposed to finally give her folks the leverage they need to finish exploration of other possibly impeachable overreaches in ethics and emoluments, in financial crimes, and in the all-things-Russia world of obstruction of justice as well as, ironically, dealing with a foreign policy about election interference.

Senate Republicans have a chance to show themselves as something other than quislings, by actually remaining open to the possibility that what Trump has owned up to here, in fact, has bragged about in his various, varying explanations over the course of a week, actually is over the line of acceptability. Still, I give this group credit for acting to back the release of the whistleblower documents. It’s a start.

Even Joe Biden finally found his voice, which is a good thing, though he used it to bat Trump around rather than speaking directly to what is widely considered anywhere but in a Republican corner a dead issue over how Biden joined a wide majority of European voices calling for dismissal of a particularly heinous Ukrainian prosecutor who, at the time, was not even looking at the company for which Biden’s son was a member of the board of directors.

For his part, Trump seems to be saying Bring it On, and already is using his perception of Democratic overreach and presidential harassment for fund-raising purposes for his reelection. Trump appears to have no problem in making this incident, yet again, a measure of himself as an invincible politician and not a measure of what it says about an America that would debase its politics.

Along the way, we Americans can feel extremely upset that we have a Justice Department that seeks to rewrite law after law to protect the president rather than the country, and a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury who throw protocol to the wind to back this president’s ever-changing versions of the truth. And we can all take particular umbrage that Rudy Giuliani has emerged as an alternative State Department.

As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt argues, Trump  “put his own interests above the national interest by pressuring a foreign country to damage a political rival. He evidently misused taxpayer money in the process. He has shown he’s willing to do almost anything to win re-election.”

Reaching this point has been overly dramatic and overly fraught with competing versions of Truth, and of what constitutes acceptable presidential behavior.

We can hope that some direct testimony and actual access to documents makes for better oversight. Without it, Trump’s behaviors know no boundaries.

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