Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Congress took the unusual — and at the time, underappreciated — step of tying his hands on a key foreign policy matter, making it harder for the president to waive sanctions against Russia that were imposed after its illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
If any of the reports in Washington that have surfaced over the past week about a mysterious whistle-blower complaint are true, Congress again needs to protect Ukraine and America’s larger foreign policy goals from the actions of a president whose policies toward Ukraine and Russia remain highly suspect.
Here’s what is known: This summer, an anonymous intelligence official lodged a whistle-blower complaint about potential misconduct. The person in charge of vetting such complaints, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, quickly determined that the complaint was “both credible and urgent.”
Under the federal whistle-blower law, the director of national intelligence should have then forwarded the complaint to the House and Senate intelligence committees. But, apparently for the first time since the whistle-blower law’s passage, that did not occur, on the grounds that “the complaint concerns conduct by someone outside of the Intelligence Community and because the complaint involves confidential and potentially privileged communications.” The two terms — outside the intelligence community and potentially privileged communications — set off feverish Beltway speculation, because they heavily hint that President Trump was the person accused of wrongdoing in the whistle-blower complaint.
Reporting in The Washington Post and other media outlets has filled in some — but not all — of the rest of the story. The complaint did indeed involve Trump, according to new reports, and a promise that he made to the leader of a foreign country. It has also been reported that the incident involved Ukraine.
What is widely known is that Trump’s political allies have been pressuring Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate the son of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who was involved with a Ukrainian natural gas company, and that the White House mysteriously withheld $250 million in aid to Ukraine at around the same time. The president’s allies have tried to suggest that Trump is just advocating for anti-corruption investigations in Ukraine, but the obvious purpose is to gin up fodder to use against Biden if he’s the Democratic nominee.
Keep in mind, Ukraine gets aid because it is under threat from Russia, which invaded the country in 2014 and annexed the Crimean peninsula. The US sanctions — the ones that Congress ensured Trump couldn’t waive — were designed to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and for interfering in the 2016 elections in an effort to help elect Trump. Protecting Ukraine from Russia has been a bipartisan goal.
It would be an outrageous abuse of power, to say the least, if Trump attempted to withhold that $250 million as leverage to get a country to help him politically. That’s not asking a foreign country to crack down on corruption — it’s behaving corruptly and demanding the foreign country become an accomplice.
Late Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump, in a July phone call, had asked Zelensky eight times to investigate Biden’s son. The $250 million didn’t come up in that particular conversation, according to the paper.
The mystery comes against the backdrop of a series of inexplicable favors Trump has done for Russian president Vladimir Putin. This administration has tried to slow-walk sanctions, readmit Russia to the G7, and just recently moved money from a European defense initiative to help build a border wall with Mexico.
On Thursday, the Democratic-led House passed legislation that would ensure that Ukraine gets military aid. The Senate should follow suit, and deprive the president of the ability to use American aid as a bargaining chip.
But in the longer term, Congress and the public also need a full explanation of the whistle-blower complaint. If the president abused his power, and a conscientious official is trying to blow the whistle, it’s an outrage that anyone in the federal government would stand in the way.