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Impeachment Today Podcast: Let's Talk About The Whistleblower

In today's episode: Senate Republicans test-drive their defense of President Trump — what he did may be wrong, but it's not impeachment-worthy.

Posted on November 4, 2019, at 4:35 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News

It's Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, 41 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

In today's episode: Senate Republicans have begun a test-drive of their defense of President Trump — what he did might have been wrong, but it's not impeachment-worthy. And we're talking to the editorial director of Just Security about the person who got this entire show on the road in the first place: the whistleblower. Trump and his allies want to know who they are. Democrats say it doesn't matter. Everyone agrees they've played a pivotal role in this phase of the Trump presidency.

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

Hayes Brown: It's Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, 41 days into the impeachment inquiry, and this is Impeachment Today. Good morning. I'm Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News. Hope you all had a calm, relaxing weekend, because it's time for this ish again. Get yourself ready, your loins properly girded.

Okay. Today we're talking to Kate Brannen, editorial director at Just Security, about the whistleblower, the mystery person whose complaint set all these pieces into motion. But before we get to all that, let's catch up on what happened over the weekend.

The last few days gave us some news and a lot of noise. On the news side, a White House official who listened to Trump's July call with the president of Ukraine was instructed by a White House lawyer to never speak of it again. That's the latest revelation to come from the testimony Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman gave last Tuesday. He's currently a senior official dealing with Russia and Ukraine policy on the National Security Council.

Vindman said that after the call, he took his concerns to national security lawyer John Eisenberg. Eisenberg then reportedly ordered that the call's transcript be moved to a server that needed a much higher security clearance than normal to access it. A few days later, Vindman said Eisenberg told him not to tell anyone about the contents of the call. That's just one of several stories that will likely be told in full later this week. Here's what Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told ABC News.

Eliot Engel: This week, we are releasing the transcripts of all the depositions and everything else is going to be public. They'll be able—

Speaker: When will there be public hearings?

Eliot Engel: Well, there will be public hearings very, very soon. This week we are having the last of the witnesses come in, and then it will be released. The transcripts will be released. Everything is transparent.

HB: Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are reportedly test-driving a new defense of President Trump — that asking Ukraine to launch an investigation that would hurt Joe Biden politically was inappropriate but not impeachable. A few senators took that line for a spin at a strategy lunch last week, including Ted Cruz of Texas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, the Washington Post reported on Friday.

Trump is accused of tying the release of $391 million in foreign aid and a visit to the White House to Ukraine's president announcing investigations into a company linked to Biden's son, and the conspiracy about the 2016 US election. Multiple current and former Trump administration officials have already told Congress. That is exactly what happened, my guys. Even though some senators are considering acknowledging that evidence, it would be a sharp departure from their counterparts in the house.

On that side of Congress, Republicans are still insisting that no quid pro quo existed. So was the president, who Sunday night tweeted — and I'm going to try to do this in one breath — "False stories are being reported that a few Republican Senators are saying that President Trump may have done a quid pro quo but it doesn't matter. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not an impeachable event. Perhaps so, but read the transcript, there is no quid pro quo." Phew, okay. That was the news. This was the noise...

That was literally the noise at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. The president was there to take in an ultimate fighting championship match, and the crowd was about as friendly as the one that booed him during the World Series last week. Okay. Yeah. That wasn't directly tied to impeachment, but it certainly didn't improve the president's mood. He spent most of Sunday tweeting and retweeting attacks against the inquiry at large, and the whistleblower specifically. When speaking to the press on Sunday, he said this:

"Well, I'll tell you what, and there've been stories written about a certain individual, a male and they say he's the whistleblower. If he's the whistleblower, he has no credibility because he's a Brennan guy. He's a Susan Rice guy, he's an Obama guy, and he hates Trump."

That comes dangerously close to outing the whistleblower despite federal laws that keep the person anonymous. That hasn't stopped Trump or the Republicans who are taking part in the inquiry from trying to get that person's name out there. And now for those of you who want to boil all this chaos down to a digit, we have today's reading from our Nixometer.

On our scale, a 0 is a normal day, normal White House and 10 is president Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine One. This morning we're at a 5.75. This week is going to include a last push to get officials to testify behind closed doors, before the start of open hearings. So you know shit's going to get spicy real soon. Also, because it bears repeating, the president got booed at a UFC match. That is a recipe for surrealism that's reflected in today's score. After the break, we're talking to Kate Brannen about the whistleblower. First, though, we have a clip from our listener Nick. He's one of the people who sent in his impeachment nightmare scenario last week. We'll have a few more of these that we'll be playing throughout the episode.

Nick: Hey, this is Nick from Raleigh, North Carolina. My impeachment worst-case scenario is that they do impeach the president in the House and then the Senate also finds him guilty, but they are unable to oust him. He just says no, and then what?

HB: Welcome back. All right friends, it's time for "This Fucking Guy," where we zoom in on a person, place, or thing that's shaping the impeachment saga. Today it's the whistleblower, the enigmatic intelligence official who Democrats love to praise and Republicans want unmasked. To help us get to know someone whose identity is unknown, we're graced with the presence of Kate Brannen. Kate's the editorial director of Just Security, an online forum, for the rigorous analysis of US national security law and policy. She's also a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much for joining us, Kate.

Kate Brannen: Thanks for having me.

HB: So, for some folks out there, one of the only things they know about the impeachment inquiry's backstory is that there is a whistleblower. For those people, if they come up to you, how would you explain the whistleblower's role in all of this?

KB: The whistleblower is a witness and a collector of information. So we know it's an intelligence community official who in, if I remember correctly, late July, if not early August, filed a formal complaint with the intelligence community inspector general outlying the wrongdoing he believed was going on within the administration. And it focused on the July 25th phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But that's not all it was about.

KB: The complaint starts by saying, "I'm filing this complaint basically because I've received information for multiple officials in the government that the president is trying to solicit interference in the 2020 election from a foreign government." And it's also really important, I think, as the weeks have gone on, and the months, now it's months have gone on, that has gotten a bit lost. That's the thing that the whistleblower was sounding the alarm on. As an intelligence community official, one of their main priorities right now, as multiple officials have testified before Congress in an open setting, the number one thing we're worried about right now is foreign interference in our election.

KB: We saw what happened in 2016.

HB: Right.

KB: We didn't really punish it. And so we are continuing to see it, from the Russians and others. So, as an intelligence community official, this was a really big deal for this person. So he collected all of this and put it in this really detailed— I think it might be an eight-page complaint, and it talks about the call and it also talks about what he saw going on with Rudy Giuliani and basically that the US foreign policy as it concerns Ukraine, was being outsourced to the president's private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And that this was really concerning.

KB: What the complaint does not say, but has been misconstrued, mostly by Trump and his supporters, is that the whistleblower said there was a quid pro quo.

HB: Right. That was nowhere within the complaint as far as I remember.

KB: It was not. What the whistleblower said was, in this phone call, Trump solicited from Zelensky these investigations into Biden. Now that alone is a really big problem—

HB: Right. But it has been spun as "Okay, but the only thing we care about is, but was this military aid involved when..." It turns out that alone is a bad thing. And that's something that we just know at this point because they released the transcript-ish of the call already.

KB: Right. And so what the whistleblower and others on the call thought that they were witnessing and hearing the president do was essentially a campaign finance violation. Soliciting a thing of value from a foreign official, from a foreign person. So the whistleblower does not explicitly say, "I witnessed and I have firsthand knowledge of a quid pro quo." What he does say is, "In addition to this solicitation, which happened during this phone call, in addition to all these things that Rudy Giuliani was getting up to, the meetings he was having with Ukrainian officials and whatnot. I know for a fact that the Ukraine security assistance, almost $400 million of it, was held up at the president's direction."

HB: Right.

KB: And the whistleblower says, "I don't know why, but I'm flagging it just in case it's part of this larger story."

HB: Right.

KB: And so that's, just to get straight, sort of what he spelled out. And he really gave a road map to the House investigators. Here are the officials who might also know about this and here are the facts as I know them. And the thing that happened next was — so he filed the complaint, the inspector general transmitted it to the acting director of National Intelligence. This man named Joseph Maguire, who sort of took a look at this and now this is not a typical whistleblower complaint—

HB: No.

KB: ... it involves the president. It involves, perhaps, a crime on the part of the president. And so he consulted with the Justice Department, and we now know he consulted with the White House, and they essentially said—

HB: "It's fine, whatever."

KB: They said, "Send it on, it looks great." No, they said, basically, "This has to stay secret. This isn't going over to Congress." And it was supposed to be transmitted to the two intelligence committees on Capitol Hill. The Senate Intelligence Committee run by a Republican Sen. Burr and the House Intelligence Committee run by Adam Schiff, a Democrat.

KB: So the acting director of National Intelligence went back to the IG, the inspector general, and said, "You're not allowed to share this with Congress." And that's when the whole thing kind of went public.

HB: So the complaint has come out now. It's been declassified. I really recommend if you're listening out there that you read it if you have not yet. So how much of it would you say has been corroborated this point, so far? Based on what we know from reports about the closed-door testimony, how much of it has been verified so far?

KB: I don't have a percentage for it. I don't feel uncomfortable saying almost all of it, if not all of it. And what the witnesses have testified to really goes beyond it because now while the whistleblower never said, "I have evidence of a quid pro quo." Multiple witnesses who've gone before the House investigators have testified, "Yes, the Ukraine aid was tied to a pledge from the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden."

HB: This person though has been under attack from the president. He's been under attack from Republicans in Congress, people trying to get his name out there inside of right-wing media, it seems. Why do they care and should we care about who this person actually is, at this point?

KB: Why do they care? I kind of view it like the Steele dossier. I think their idea is that if they can discredit the origin story of this whole thing, then anything that happens afterward is tainted. Unlike the Steele dossier, I think they're going to have a hard time developing the same kind of corrupt story around this whistleblower who, for all we know, is a government official who took every proper step to report this inside the government in a legal fashion. He did not go to the press. He did not leak. He is a whistleblower because he's following the rules.

KB: Should we care who he is? At this point, I really don't think so. I think so many other witnesses have stepped forward and corroborated his story. I know the Republicans really want him to have to testify before Congress and I think the Democrats' position is at this point, "We don't need him. We're getting it from everybody else. He provided a roadmap for us, which we've now sort of checked every box that he outlined."

KB: And I think that the attempts to attack him through the right-wing press, to out him are just really, really dangerous. At the end of the day, this is a person who's sitting in his house, wherever he is, getting death threats and whatnot. And I think that's really important to keep in mind that this is like high-stakes.

HB: Right. Okay. So, whistleblower complaint, not just about Zelensky. Most of the complaints has been corroborated and the whistleblower, we just don't need to know who he is at this point.

HB: Kate, thank you so much for laying all of that out for us and making a little more sense about who this person is, even if we may never know who they actually are. Who knows? Maybe they're the next Deep Throat. We'll find out in 30 years. Congratulations to whoever the next Mark Felt is out there.

KB: Thanks, Hayes.

HB: Okay. So now it is time for the kicker, where we ask our guests to bring in a tweet, a quote, a headline, a something that they feel really sums up where we are in this moment. Okay, so Kate, what do you got?

KB: I brought in for us a great headline, I think it was last night, and it's “Trump Mulls FDR-Like Fireside Chat Over Ukraine Phone Call.”

HB: Oh, yes. Oh, I love it so much.

KB: Apparently yesterday Trump said he reiterated that this is over a phone call. That's a good call. At some point I'm going to sit down perhaps as a fireside chat on live television and I will read the transcript of the call because people have to hear it. When you read it. It's a straight call.

HB: Oh, I can't wait for that. He says a lot of things, but if he actually does this, it'll be a great day in my life, at least.

KB: Well, one of the reasons I love this is because it reminded me of the letter he released a few weeks ago to Fox News that he sent—

HB: The president of Turkey.

KB: Yes.

HB: Yes.

KB: Erdogan. And he thought it made him look really good when in fact it was like an appalling foolish—

HB: Horribly written... His tweets, in the form of official White House letter. Oh, I hope this happens. I really do.

HB: Okay. Now we have, for you, another listener who submitted their impeachment nightmare scenario. This is Erica Thomas.

Erica Thomas: My nightmare scenario is that the Senate can't get the votes to convict the president, and so the impeachment is quote-unquote failed and he's acquitted, I guess. And then the alt-right uses that as fuel for their conspiracy theories and this whole witch hunt narrative they're trying to push spreads, and we end up with a nation where the national narrative is that this was all fake news and the Democrats are witch hunters and all of that good stuff. And everyone believes that and Trump gets reelected.

HB: Thanks, Erica. We loved hearing from listeners so much. We want more. So, for this week, tell us what you're most curious about with impeachment. What are your questions? What doesn't make sense? Open up the voice memo app on your phone. Tell us what you're wondering about. Then email it to impeachment@buzzfeed.com or find me on Twitter @hayesbrown. My DMs are open. We'll be playing more of these next Monday.

All right, that's it for today. Tomorrow we'll have more fun times for you as the House barrels forward and a chat about John Bolton. The guy, Democrats least expected to be their new favorite Republican.

Oh, and we've one more impeachment nightmare for you. Here's Toby Markham's.

Toby Markham: My worst fear of all of it is that he wins a second term.

HB: Impeachment Today is a joint production between BuzzFeed News and iHeartRadio with new episodes dropping every weekday morning. Our show is produced by Dan Bouza, Alan Haburchak, and Jacopo Penzo with editorial assistance from Tom Gara and Jessica Weisberg. Editing by Josh Fisher and Ryan Kailath. Julian Weller is our supervising producer.

Special thanks to Nikki Ettore, Mangesh Hattikudur, Samantha Henig, Maggie Shultz, and Ben Smith. Be sure to subscribe to Impeachment Today on the the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows. And maybe leave a rating and a review. Also tell your friends about the show as we all figure this out together.

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