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James Risen: Whistleblower Complaint Shows “Trump Is a Habitual Criminal” Abusing His Office

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Democrats are ramping up efforts to impeach President Trump for pressing the president of Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Nearly 90% of House Democrats now support impeachment. On Thursday, a declassified version of a complaint by an anonymous whistleblower was released, detailing his concerns about Trump’s July phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky. In the complaint, the unnamed whistleblower — who has been identified as a CIA official — accused the president of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The complaint also revealed details about how the White House attempted to “lock down” all records of Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky by moving a transcript of the call to a standalone computer system reserved for codeword-level intelligence information. The whistleblower wrote in his complaint, “According to White House officials I spoke with, this was 'not the first time' under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.” For more on the unfolding scandal, we speak with James Risen, senior national security correspondent for The Intercept.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Washington, D.C., where more than 90% of House Democrats now support the impeachment of President Trump for pushing the president of Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate — his rival — Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

On Thursday, a declassified version of a complaint by an anonymous whistleblower was released. In the nine-page document, an unnamed government whistleblower — who has been identified as a CIA official — writes, quote, “[T]he President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” unquote.

The complaint also revealed details about how the White House attempted to “lock down” all records of Trump’s phone conversation with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky soon after it happened, by moving a transcript of the call to a standalone computer system reserved for codeword-level intelligence information. The whistleblower wrote in his complaint, quote, “According to White House officials I spoke with, this was 'not the first time' under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information,” unquote.

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the Trump administration of a cover-up.

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: There is actions that are actions that are a cover-up, yeah. When you take — when you have a system of electronic storage for information that is specifically for national security purposes, and you have something that is self-serving to the president politically, and decide it might not be — you might not want people to know, and you hide it someplace else, that’s a cover-up.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, President Trump lashed out at the whistleblower and White House officials who spoke to him. During remarks at a closed-door gathering of diplomats on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Trump compared the whistleblower to a treasonous spy. Audio of his remarks was leaked to the Los Angeles Times.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days, when we were smart, right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump also called reporters “scum” and “animals.” Trump’s comments came hours after acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified on Capitol Hill and defended his handling of the whistleblower’s comment, but also said he felt the whistleblower had acted in good faith.

We’re joined right now by James Risen, The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent. He published two pieces in The Intercept this week, including a piece headlined “I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside Down.” James Risen is a former New York Times reporter. He was pursued by both the Bush and then Obama administrations as part of a six-year leak investigation into his book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

So, Jim Risen, we have a lot to talk about here. First, can you talk about the revelations in Washington, the significance of this whistleblower coming forward, even the director of national intelligence saying that he did the appropriate thing, the whistleblower, you know, moving within the system, filing his complaint? Explain everything that’s happened so far.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, well, there is a lot to cover. I think, to me, this just shows, as I wrote yesterday, that Trump is a habitual criminal. This phone call with the Ukrainian president happened the day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress, basically wrapping up the Mueller investigation. So, he starts in with the Ukraine — attempting to get the Ukraine to interfere in the U.S. 2020 election the day after Mueller completes his presence on the stage in terms of his investigation of the 2016 Russian interference.

So, I think this — we have to step back and realize that this Ukrainian story is part of this larger picture of Trump constantly breaking the law, violating the norms of society, and trying to use his power to damage his opponents and violate the Constitution. So, I think if you look at it, I think one of the questions I now have is: How many other countries has he done the same thing with that we don’t know about yet?

I think that the Ukrainian — the whistleblower is unique to me, because very few whistleblowers have been able to go through the chain of command, the process set up for whistleblowers inside the government, without retaliation or being fired or being stymied. And so, most whistleblowers end up going to the press largely because they’re frustrated by the internal system. In this case, the whistleblower was also clearly frustrated, because the DNI refused to release this to Congress, and then the White House and the Justice Department both tried to quash it. And if you realize it, in the end, it was really only the leaks to the press about the existence of this whistleblower complaint that finally forced the White House and pressured the White House to comply with the congressional demands that it be released. So, even in this case, where the whistleblower followed the rules, it was only press leaks and the role of the press that finally forced it out into the open.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the rules are, when you go through the formal process as a whistleblower, making a complaint like this, why it’s supposed to go directly to Congress.

JAMES RISEN: Well, I mean, the whole point of blowing a whistle about wrongdoing in the government is that you have to take it to another branch of government so that there are checks and balances. The law is set up so that intelligence whistleblowers can go outside of their own chain of command and take it to somebody who’s not their boss and doesn’t have the power to fire them, and to somebody inside the government who has oversight and can investigate the problem.

The way that this idiot, Maguire, handled it was to take — go right to the White House and say, “What should I do with it?” when the White House was named in the complaint. And then he takes it to the Justice Department after, where Attorney General Barr is named in the complaint. I thought Adam Schiff’s questions of Maguire were right on, and then Maguire had no good answer when he asked about why he did it this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, we want to go to this clip. This is the House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff questioning acting [Director of National Intelligence] Joseph Maguire in Thursday’s hearing.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Would you agree that the whistleblower complaint alleges serious wrongdoing by the president of the United States?

JOSEPH MAGUIRE: The whistleblower complaint involved the allegation of that. It is not for me in the intelligence community to decide how the president conducts his foreign policy or his interaction with leaders of other countries, sir.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Well, I’m not asking you to opine on how the president conducts foreign policy. I’m asking you whether, as the statute requires, this complaint involved serious wrongdoing, in this case, by the president of the United States, an allegation of serious wrongdoing by the president of the United States. Is that not the subject of this complaint?

JOSEPH MAGUIRE: Yes, that is the subject of the allegation of the complaint. And two things, Mr. Chairman.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: And let me ask you about that. The inspector general found that serious allegation of misconduct by the president credible. Did you also find that credible?

JOSEPH MAGUIRE: I did not criticize the inspector general’s decision on whether it not was credible. My question was whether it not — whether it not it meets the urgent concern and the seven-day time frame that would follow when so as notified.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: But my question, Director —

JOSEPH MAGUIRE: So I have no — I have no — no question in his judgment that he considers it a serious matter.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, being questioned by Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff. Jim Risen?

JAMES RISEN: I just think, in a way, I kind of pitied Maguire. He seemed like way in over his head. He had no idea what was really going on here. He’s a Navy SEAL as background, clearly was picked for this job because he’s a nobody, after Dan Coats and Sue Gordon, his deputy, were both fired by Trump because he didn’t like people who actually disagreed with him occasionally. This guy is clearly — has no idea what was going on, and he was thrust into a situation that he didn’t understand. So, in a way, I kind of pity him. But he also should not have taken a job like this where he didn’t really understand the parameters or the dynamics going on.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Attorney General William Barr? Lay out what we understand at this point his involvement in this story is.

JAMES RISEN: Well, I think it’s a little unclear. But in the phone call with the Ukrainian president, Trump says, “I want you to talk to both my attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and the attorney general, Barr, about the Bidens and give them — help them get damaging information, or make up damaging information about them, so that we can then go after the Bidens.” And the Justice Department has claimed now that Barr — that Trump never talked to Barr about this. So we don’t really know whether that’s true or not.

But we do know that Maguire took the whistleblower’s complaint both to the White House and to the Justice Department, and the Justice Department told him he didn’t have to release it to Congress right away. And they also, reportedly, very, very quickly decided that there was no grounds for prosecution against Trump, based on the idea that — which was a similar reasoning that was in the Mueller report, which was that it’s not a campaign finance law violation to seek opposition research from a foreign power, because it’s not — you can’t prove that opposition research is a thing of value under campaign finance law. So they used the same legal reasoning that Mueller used in deciding not to prosecute the Trump Tower meeting between the Trump campaign officials and the Russian lawyer. I think it’s a very, very weak argument, and they came to that conclusion in a very rapid way that tried — they were obviously trying to shut this whole thing down before it ever got to Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of President Trump’s private attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, who’s going back and forth to Ukraine but saying he’s doing this on behalf of the State Department?

JAMES RISEN: It’s a bizarre — I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s truly bizarre. And I don’t know — it has to be, clearly, unethical or illegal. I mean, I’m wondering what laws cover his actions as a private citizen. It may be a violation of the Neutrality Act for a private citizen to engage in U.S. foreign policy. But that will be something that Congress really should investigate, is what the hell was Rudy Giuliani doing, and how does he — what role is he playing? And who — actually, who’s paying him? Where is he getting his money from? Is it Donald Trump himself, or is it the U.S. government?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, he’s saying he’s working on behalf of the State Department. And finally, President Trump seeming to throw Vice President Pence under the bus, as well? As he’s talking about these perfect and beautiful phone conversations he’s had with the Ukrainian president, he also says —


AMY GOODMAN: — “You should check out Pence’s, as well.”

JAMES RISEN: Right. The thing about Donald Trump is he lies about everything all the time, and that one of the real problems I have with the press today is that we actually — that the mainstream press quotes him all the time, knowing that he’s lying about everything, and continues to treat him like he’s really the president, when he’s just an illegitimate criminal, and he lies about everything. So why are we constantly quoting him and quoting his tweets and his statements, when you know that everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to talk about the story that you reported, oh, actually years ago. And that is the story of Hunter Biden in Ukraine. James Risen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, now at The Intercept, their senior national security correspondent. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Why We Build the Wall,” sung by Billy Bragg, performing in our studio live here this week. Visit to see his full interview and performance.

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Next story from this daily show

James Risen: I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine in 2015. The Right-Wing Media Twisted My Reporting

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