The Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam

An air of crisis is enveloping Washington over allegations from a whistleblower against President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE over his dealings with a foreign government.

The specifics of the complaint are still unclear — something that irks Trump’s critics and supporters alike — but dealings with Ukraine appear to form a major part of it.

The furor is also deepening because of Democratic outrage that the administration has blocked details of the complaint from being made available, even on a classified basis, to members of Congress.

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The Washington Post initially broke the story that an unnamed intelligence official had been so disquieted by a “promise” Trump had made to a foreign leader that he or she had taken the extraordinary step of filing an official whistleblower complaint against the president.

The inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, had determined the complaint to be credible and urgent, the Post reported.

New details have leaked out to other news outlets since then, deepening the dangers for Trump, whose critics are already alleging that he may have been involved in a quid-pro-quo deal.

“We are getting deeper and deeper into a crisis, and I think at this point we are beyond a constitutional crisis,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez, Thunberg, Rapinoe make BBC's 100 most inspiring women of 2019 Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden Democratic strategist on Sanders debate performance: 'I just think he might've topped out' MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters on Friday. “This is a threat to the very sovereignty of the United States.”

Others are questioning whether the crisis could be serious enough to finally shake congressional Republicans to reconsider their hitherto-unflinching support for Trump.

“At some point, is Trump going to do something so that they actually say, ‘Wait a minute, did you actually do that? No, this is enough.' That happened with Nixon and that’s what it took to get toward impeachment,” Mark Zaid, a D.C.-based attorney who specializes in national security matters, told The Hill.

A Wall Street Journal report on Friday afternoon asserted that Trump had “repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says lawmakers should censure Schiff Schiff says committees will eventually make impeachment inquiry transcripts public Trump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses MORE’s son, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTrump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses Sondland could provide more clues on Ukraine controversy Top US diplomat William Taylor scheduled to testify in impeachment probe MORE, his personal lawyer.”

The Journal also noted that the administration had delayed $250 million in aid to Ukraine, voted on by Congress, until earlier this month.

Trump insists he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

Speaking to reporters on Friday morning in the Oval Office, the president said that his communications with foreign leaders were “always appropriate.” 

He also dismissed the story as “ridiculous” and the whistleblower as “partisan” — though he also said he did not know the person’s identity.

Still, media inquiries are raising more questions than Trump has so far been able to answer.

The Wall Street Journal story said that Giuliani had told its reporters that he had met on two occasions — once in June and once in August — with officials tied to the Ukrainian government. 

Giuliani has been open about his desire for the Ukrainians to investigate a gas company in the Eastern European nation where Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, once served on the board.

Giuliani also canceled a planned trip to Ukraine in May amid controversy over comments he made to The New York Times. At that point, he told the Times, “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do.”

Critics of the president, and Giuliani, scorn that idea. 

After Giuliani admitted in a CNN interview that he had asked Ukraine to investigate Biden, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Hillary Clinton praises former administration officials who testified before House as 'gutsy women' Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart MORE tweeted Friday that “the president asked a foreign power to help him win an election. Again.”

Some Democrats are arguing that the new reports sharpen the need for full-bore impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanDemocrat argues GOP had 'no deep love or loyalty' to Trump Democrats take Trump impeachment case to voters Overnight Energy: Lawmakers show irritation over withheld Interior documents | Republican offers bipartisan carbon tax bill | Scientists booted from EPA panel form new group MORE (D-Calif.) tweeted a link to the Wall Street Journal story and asked, “Colleagues in Congress:  if this isn't impeachable abuse of power, what is?”

Huffman also complained about “the parsing, dithering & political overcalculating” and insisted, “Time to do our job!”

The political dangers for Trump are elevated because they again raise the specter of him colluding with a foreign nation for his own electoral gain.

But the extent to which support for him among the Congressional GOP will be shaken appears very much in doubt.

“It’s premature to say this is going to be a huge problem for Trump with Republican members of Congress,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioChina's TikTok turns to former lawmakers to help with content moderation policies Hillicon Valley: Warren turns up heat in battle with Facebook | Instagram unveils new data privacy feature | Advocacy group seeks funding to write about Big Tech TikTok adds former lawmakers to help develop content moderation policies MORE’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “If the facts come out and it is a worst-case scenario, that would put members in an awkward situation. But there is no reason to think it’ll come to that.”

A counter-attack by Trump loyalists is already underway, meanwhile — focusing on the anonymity of the whistleblower and the mystery that still surrounds what exactly is being alleged.

Brad Blakeman, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s White House and a staunch supporter of Trump, said he was “outraged” that an intelligence official would make a whistleblower complaint against a sitting president.

“I think it is very dangerous any time an unelected, nameless person interferes with the constitutional duties of the president, or any other elected person,” said Blakeman.

Claire Finkelstein, a law professor at Penn Law and a national security expert took a very different view. 

She said that the “silence has been deafening” from Republicans so far — something that she said was incongruous given the gravity of the matter.

“There are so many layers of issues, one on top of the other, that it really makes me feel we are in a new ballgame in terms of testing the limits of presidential power, and testing the political system’s ability to fight back against abuse of executive power and corruption,” she said.

“These are serious issues.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.