A year ago today, Trump had a phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and promised to deliver the money Congress had appropriated for Ukraine's protection against Russian military incursions. Then he added: "I would like you to do us a favor, though...."
While Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who was on the call, told his superiors what he had heard, someone else filed a whistleblower complaint. That complaint went to Trump's own appointee at the Intelligence Community's Inspector General's office, Michael Atkinson. Atkinson agreed that the matter was both "credible" and "urgent" and that House and Senate Intelligence Committees must be informed, as required by law.
Atkinson followed the law, passing the information to the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, on August 26. Maguire had only taken office ten days before, on August 16, after Trump's first DNI, Dan Coats, and Coates's second-in-command, Sue Gordon, both resigned. As an acting director, rather than a Senate-confirmed leader, Maguire served at the pleasure of the president.
Maguire was supposed to scour the whistleblower complaint of all classified information before forwarding to Congress by September 2, as the law required. But, instead, Maguire took the complaint to the Department of Justice, headed by Trump loyalist Attorney General William Barr. On his advice, Maguire decided not to turn over the information to Congress.
When that happened, Atkinson told the relevant congresspeople that the DNI was illegally withholding the complaint. On September 10, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-CA) demanded that acting DNI Maguire produce it. Maguire refused, saying that the complaint was about someone not in the Intelligence Community, and therefore not covered by the whistleblower law. (The law does not give him the authority to refuse to deliver a complaint his IG considers credible and urgent. It says he MUST deliver it.)
On Friday, September 13, Schiff wrote a scathing letter to Maguire that brought this whole issue to public attention, noting that it sure seemed like Maguire might be protecting the president, and demanding Maguire follow the law and hand over the whistleblower complaint.
I happened to be scrolling through Twitter when Schiff's letter dropped, and I recognized it for what it was: a powerful member of Congress accusing a specific member of the Executive Branch of breaking a specific law... the sort of moment on which American history turns.
And that, my friends, is how these Letters began.
Since then, the House impeached Trump but the Senate exonerated him; Vindman is gone; Atkinson is gone; Maguire is gone. But as Trump has increasingly consolidated his power, Americans have woken up and taken to heart that democracy is not a spectator sport.
It has been a year by the calendar, but an eternity in the history of this nation.
Still, for all that I yearn for a time when we can go for days without worrying about what's going on in the White House, I am profoundly grateful to have discovered so many other people who care as deeply as I do about this country.
There is plenty of news today, but none of it breaking, so I am going to let it go for a night.
See you all tomorrow.
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© 2020 Heather Cox Ri