Making the click-through worthwhile: Why the whistleblower will be only a minor player in the upcoming impeachment drama; the lower-tier Democratic presidential candidates start turning on each other; and the Joker movie is almost here.
How Much Does the Whistleblower Really Matter?
Here’s an assessment sure to be unpopular: When the story of the impeachment effort against President Trump is written, the whistleblower will be an afterthought or a minor player in the overall story at most. Either the whistleblower’s claims are accurate, or they aren’t. Impeachment will hinge upon whether President Trump’s actions strike lawmakers as an effort to effectively blackmail Ukraine into finding dirt on Joe Biden, or whether it’s just Trump being Trump, wanting the facts on Biden strong-arming a foreign government to fire a prosecutor who might have been investigating a company that employed his son. The vast majority of lawmakers’ conclusions on this will just happen to align with their partisan affiliations.
The whistleblower might be a really partisan individual, or the whistleblower might have no strong political views and simply saw the president as crossing an ethical line in a way too egregious to remain silent. The motive of the accuser doesn’t make the accusation any more or less true or false. The proper procedure for handling a complaint like this may have been followed, or it may not have; it certainly sounds like a labyrinth.
The whistleblower, employed by the CIA and who at one point worked at the White House, first offered an anonymous complaint to the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Elwood. Elwood was obligated to check out the complaint and contacted John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and her counterpart at the National Security Council. Eisenberg and Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division. Demers read the transcript of the call and went to deputy attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, and Brian Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division. Shortly thereafter, Attorney General William Barr was briefed about the brewing issue. Meanwhile, that CIA officer then went separately to the House Intelligence Committee, and an intelligence panel staffer told the whistleblower to get a lawyer and go to the CIA Inspector General. That panel staffer at some point informed chairman Adam Schiff.
Adam Schiff’s spokesman, Patrick Boland, told the New York Times that the congressman “never saw any part of the complaint or knew precisely what the whistle-blower would deliver.” How much work is “precisely” doing in that sentence?
Our Mairead McArdle already noticed that on September 17, Schiff appeared on MSNBC and declared, “We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower. We would like to, but I’m sure the whistleblower has concerns that he has not been advised as the law requires by the inspector general or the director of national intelligence just as to how he is to communicate with Congress.” He didn’t speak directly with the whistleblower, but his committee staff did.
We now know Schiff’s statement on MSNBC wasn’t accurate; some people would call that a lie. (If you’re House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you’ve probably noticed that is two unforced errors on the part of Schiff in this process already; first the ‘parody’ of Trump’s call readout, now this not-quite-true statement.)
You’re going to continue to hear a lot of claims that the whistleblower isn’t credible because of the information being secondhand. Once again, this is somewhat moot; either the president did what he’s accused of or not. Senator Chuck Grassley lays this out: “When it comes to whether someone qualifies as a whistleblower, the distinctions being drawn between first- and second-hand knowledge aren’t legal ones. It’s just not part of whistleblower protection law or any agency policy. Complaints based on second-hand information should not be rejected out of hand, but they do require additional leg work to get at the facts and evaluate the claim’s credibility.”
If the whistleblower had never written up the complaint, we may well have ended up in this same place anyway. Defense appropriators on Capitol Hill were inevitably going to notice that security assistance to Ukraine was getting delayed, and were already starting to complain in late August.
In fact, notice this August 21 report in the New York Times:
Over the last few weeks, Mr. Giuliani has spoken on the phone and held an in-person meeting, in Madrid, with a top representative of the new Ukrainian president, encouraging his government to ramp up investigations into two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.
One is whether Ukrainian officials took steps during the 2016 election to damage Mr. Trump’s campaign. The other is whether there was anything improper about the overlap between former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s diplomatic efforts in Ukraine and his son’s role with a gas company there.
Mr. Giuliani’s efforts have inflamed the situation, said several government officials who handle foreign policy in the United States and Ukraine. Speaking anonymously to avoid running afoul of Mr. Trump or his allies, they blamed Mr. Giuliani for complicating efforts to arrange a visit by Mr. Zelensky to the White House, and for creating a perception that such a meeting would be contingent upon the new Ukrainian government demonstrating support for the investigations.
Meaning by mid-to-late August, some unnamed U.S. government officials were complaining to the New York Times about the “creation of a perception” that a quid pro quo was at work with the new Ukrainian leadership. Was the whistleblower one of their sources? Or were the efforts of the whistleblower redundant, considering the officials speaking to the Times?
One other wrinkle being widely overlooked: the investigation into Burisma had been reopened by a prosecutor appointed by Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro O. Poroshenko. The New York Times, May 1: “Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, a deputy for Mr. Lutsenko who was handling the cases before being reassigned last month, told The New York Times that he was scrutinizing millions of dollars of payments from Burisma to the firm that paid Hunter Biden.” So it’s not quite accurate to say Trump and Giuliani wanted the Ukrainians to investigate Hunter Biden; they wanted them to reopen the investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma.
For what it’s worth, John Solomon wrote back in April that Ukrainian prosecutors had “financial records showing a Ukrainian natural gas company routed more than $3 million to American accounts tied to Hunter Biden.” Was that just the routine payments for a board member? What was the crime being investigated? Was Hunter Biden simply guilty of being underqualified, overpaid, and a figurehead to create the impression that Burisma is better-connected than it really was? Or had some U.S. or Ukrainian law been broken by the company?
The Second- and Third-Tier Democrats Start Eating Their Own
Running for office is hard. Running for president is particularly hard. People who have run for lower office multiple times and won statewide suddenly find themselves flailing once they run for president. Lawmakers with sterling resumes, top-flight intellects, buckets of charisma, sharp wits, and amiable senses of humor can jump into a presidential race and suddenly find themselves stumbling and never really even getting competitive. The list, to quote Top Gun, is long and distinguished: Pete Wilson, Tommy Thompson, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, Mo Udall.
Losing stinks, and the closing days of a doomed presidential campaign must feel like a daily exercise in humiliation. You can’t get enough press attention, and when you do, it’s negative. If you spill something on your tie or shirt while trying some god-awful local delicacy, that’s the picture of you that will run on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Iowa or New Hampshire. Attendance at your town hall meetings is sparse, and every question amounts to, “so, what will you do for me?” Groups invite you to an ‘issues forum’ out of obligation, knowing if they were ever seriously considering endorsing you, that time passed a while ago. Some SUV splattered mud on your yard signs by the side of the road. Some strip club buys ad space right next to your billboard by the highway. Staffers quit or secretly send their resumes to your rivals.
Desperation kicks in, and it’s no wonder that some candidates get a little angrier and nastier as the heat is turned up. This year’s second and third tier of the Democratic field is starting to turn into a piranha tank.
Beto O’Rourke Saturday: “I mean, I could maybe do a Facebook livestream with a kitten and, say, you know, ‘Now, we don’t want anything to happen to the kitten . . . and so, you know, send your $5 or $10 or $15 in now. And, you know, Miss Whiskers is going to be fine.'”
O’Rourke, Wednesday: “I heard some of the comments made today on this stage,” O’Rourke said Wednesday at a “March for Our Lives” forum in Las Vegas. “Those who are worried about the polls and want to triangulate — I’m thinking about Mayor Pete on this one.”
Cory Booker, later that day, noted that O’Rourke “criticized me when I came out for” licensing, but noted that the Texas Democrat now supports the policy. And Cory Booker’s the nice guy in this race!
Julian Castro’s press secretary chose to hit Saturday Night Live for not including him in their Democratic debate sketch.
Do you smell that? Take a big whiff. That’s premium desperation right there!
ADDENDA: I did not expect to see the day I would be quoted in Hello, the international celebrity news magazine. One minor correction; I didn’t review Joker, I simply wrote about what seemed unnerving about the tone and message of the trailer. I have little doubt that at some point in the film — which our Kyle Smith called “mesmerizing” — the filmmakers will attempt to make clear that no matter how terribly society has treated Arthur Fleck, he’s not justified in becoming a homicidal maniac. The question is, does the audience understand that point? Kyle writes, “Set in a 1981 urban hell piled with garbage and overrun by rats, Joker channels the notorious misfits of the era, including fictional ones: Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Bernhard Goetz, Travis Bickle (whose actions inspired Hinckley, the failed assassin of President Reagan) and Rupert Pupkin (an entertainment-industry isotope of Bickle).” The thing is, a bunch of those real-life figures looked at violent cinema and believed it was telling them that their violent acts were okay. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine that some ticking time bomb out there will watch this story and perceive the same message . . .
Separately, I’m scheduled to appear on Ed Morrissey’s program today around 5 p.m. eastern.