The Impeachment Story Is Simple. Republicans Are Trying To Confuse You.

WASHINGTON ― The story behind why Democrats are moving forward with an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is simple.

The president repeatedly pressured a foreign government to meddle in the 2020 U.S. election to help him win. It’s all there in the White House summary of Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president. It’s corroborated by the subsequent whistleblower complaint. And Trump keeps telling other countries to do it, too, on live television.

The Republican strategy to respond to this is to create total confusion, namely by focusing on the arcane legal process of whistleblower law. Not only are their claims false, they are irrelevant to the facts of Trump’s abuse of power.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is out in front trying to lose people in the arcana of process and distract from what Trump did. He seized on a Wednesday New York Times report that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) got advance word of the whistleblower’s report and falsely claimed that Schiff orchestrated the complaint.

“Democrats have rigged this process from the start,” McCarthy tweeted Wednesday, linking to the Times story.

What the story actually said was that the whistleblower initially approached an Intelligence Committee staffer with a vague accusation. The staffer told the whistleblower to file a formal complaint through proper channels, per protocol, and then shared some of what the whistleblower said with Schiff, who never even knew the whistleblower’s identity.

The whistleblower did exactly what they were supposed to do. The intelligence community whistleblower process lists the congressional intelligence committees as a venue that a whistleblower may take their complaint or approach about how to proceed with a complaint.

Republicans already know that whistleblowers are encouraged to go straight to committees with a complaint. The GOP’s own page on the House Oversight and Reform website prominently features a link that literally says “blow the whistle” and offers a form for filing a complaint.

“In my experience, it’s more than common for potential whistleblowers to contact the congressional intelligence committees directly in order to obtain guidance on the proper way to disclose wrongdoing,” Irvin McCullough, an intelligence community whistleblower expert at the Government Accountability Project, told HuffPost.

“The process by which intelligence community employees and contractors can report wrongdoing is extremely complex and convoluted,” he added. “You need someone that can help usher you along that process, whether that is a congressional intelligence committee staff or an experienced attorney.”

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is among the GOP leaders spreading false information about the Ukraine whistleblower complaint. It’s all part of a strategy to take attention off of what Trump actually did.

Aides to Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking member, said on Wednesday that the whistleblower followed proper procedure by asking the House Intelligence Committee for guidance on how to file a complaint. That’s on top of the intelligence community inspector general and Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, both publicly stating that the whistleblower had done everything by the book.

Another glaring hole in McCarthy’s claim is that the White House, Trump’s personal attorney and Trump himself have all separately corroborated the whistleblower’s claims. Even before releasing the transcript, the president admitted that he brought up Joe Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has repeatedly said he was right to do so.

The president said his conversation with Zelensky was about corruption, too. “It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption [sic] already in the Ukraine,” Trump said on Sept. 22.

Additionally, the call summary revealed Trump tying talks about U.S. military aid to Ukraine to his request for investigations into his potential 2020 rival Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. At the time of the call, Trump had suspended the provision of all aid to Ukraine. Zelensky was not aware of the U.S. suspension of aid until weeks after the call.

It’s more than common for potential whistleblowers to contact the congressional intelligence committees directly in order to obtain guidance on the proper way to disclose wrongdoing. Irvin McCullough, an intelligence community whistleblower expert

Republicans are trying to paper over these facts with confusion, conspiracies and flat-out lies about how Democrats are proceeding in their investigation.

“This is looking more & more like a deep state scheme,” House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) tweeted Wednesday, invoking an insane conspiracy theory as an explanation for how Schiff got wind of a whistleblower complaint before it was filed.

“Schiff told the media on September 17: ‘We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower. We would like to.’ He lied. The question is why?” McCarthy tweeted Wednesday, falsely claiming Schiff had spoken with the whistleblower when he had not.

GOP senators, meanwhile, have been spreading misinformation to try to smear the credibility of the whistleblower. They have argued that in order to be considered a “real” whistleblower, you have to have firsthand information of a situation, which is false.

“By definition, he’s not a whistleblower because he was reporting hearsay,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) incorrectly told reporters last week. “I think that we are giving too much credence, or at least credit, to someone who does not meet the definition of a whistleblower.”

“It’s not a whistleblower because he wasn’t in the room. He wasn’t on the phone call,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said last week, also falsely.

They were publicly corrected on Tuesday by one of their own colleagues, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime advocate of whistleblower safeguards.

“The distinctions being drawn between first- and second-hand knowledge aren’t legal ones,” said Grassley. “It’s just not part of whistleblower protection law or any agency policy.”

He added, “This person appears to have followed the whistleblower protection laws and ought to be heard out and protected.”

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Russia and 2020 Elections

One week after Robert Mueller’s testimony shined a spotlight, once again, on election interference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is feeling the heat. The leader turned heads on the Senate floor Monday as he rose to decry critics who have dubbed him “a Russian asset” and “Moscow Mitch” for stonewalling congressional measures to improve election security. And with momentum building in the House to formally start impeachment proceedings against President Trump, the pressure is unlikely to let up anytime soon.

Focusing on election interference from 2016 is backwards thinking, though, at least according to Virginia Senator Mark Warner. With 2020 just around the corner, he tells WIRED—in an exclusive interview—that the upcoming election is where both parties need to direct their attention right now.

As the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Warner has long been a vocal proponent of new legislation to strengthen election protections, such as the Honest Ad Act, which would compel Silicon Valley firms to disclose when political ads are paid for by a foreign nation. He’s also behind a bill that would require campaigns to alert federal officials if they’re approached by a foreign operative offering information or other assistance. Both bills have bipartisan support—Senator Susan Collins became the first Republican to cosponsor the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act earlier this week.

Even as GOP leaders try to position election security as a partisan issue, Warner—a former governor of Virginia and a cofounder of the firm that eventually became Nextel—has maintained the respect of his colleagues across the aisle. But his frustration seems to be growing, especially now that Trump has tapped Representative John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be his next director of national intelligence. Unlike Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has already come out opposed to Ratcliffe, Warner tells WIRED he’s still got some patience left. Even if it’s wearing thin.

This transcript is slightly edited for length and clarity.

WIRED: After Mueller testified, the president and Republicans say case closed. What do you make of that?

Mark Warner: I’m not here to relitigate 2016, or the Mueller testimony, specifically. I would point out, out of the Mueller investigation: 37 indictments, the president’s national security adviser pled guilty. The president’s campaign manager pled guilty. The president’s deputy campaign manager pled guilty. The president’s chief political adviser is coming to trial in the fall, Roger Stone. The attorney general had to resign. There were literally hundreds of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

That’s not normal. And I think the biggest takeaway from the Mueller testimony was that the Russians who attacked us in 2016 are still attacking us and, in Bob Mueller’s words, on a daily basis. You combine that with the warnings from Trump’s own FBI director [Christopher Wray] and Trump’s own director of national intelligence [Dan Coats]. And one of the things that concerns me the greatest is that we’ve not done more to protect the integrity of our election system in 2020.

I was just talking to your [Intelligence Committee] cochair, Senator [Richard] Burr, and he was saying the states in 2018 weathered these attacks, the national infrastructure is good on election security. Basically, case closed, again, not much more is needed.

I think everyone picked up their game in 2018, including the Department of Homeland Security, and our intelligence community was more active as well. But the intelligence community’s own reporting was that Russia didn’t throw its full force of efforts in 2018. Chances are they’ll reserve those for the presidential election. So I think there is some low-hanging fruit that would get 75 votes on the floor of the Senate—if we could get these bills to the floor of the Senate.

I think there ought to be an affirmative obligation that if a foreign government, the Kremlin, offers you campaign help, your obligation ought to be not to say thank you, but to report to the FBI. I think we ought to make sure that every polling station in America has a paper ballot backup, so that if a machine was hacked, you’ve still got ability to protect the integrity of the voting system. And I haven’t met anyone that doesn’t think we need some basic guard rails around the manipulation of Facebook, Twitter, and Google by foreign entities and others. So at least there ought to be the requirement that if somebody advertises on a political basis on Facebook, but in truth it’s a foreign government, they ought to have the same disclosure requirements as somebody who advertises on radio or television.

Isn’t it a little bit ironic that in this highly digital era, we’re going back to paper ballots?

I think we need to make sure that we use the best technology, but if technology, as we see from banks this week, can continue to be hacked into, if voting machines are not as protected as needed, if the private companies who control the voter files could have their information moved around … You don’t need to change votes to cause chaos. I think people’s overall confidence in the system goes up if there is that back check of having a paper ballot backup. Again, this is not saying we wouldn’t still use voting machines, but across the election community everyone believes it’s safer if you have that paper ballot backup that goes along with the voting counting machines.

And now we know we’re getting attacked, cybersecurity is on the top of many minds. And then the president this week announced he’s nominating Representative John Ratcliffe to be DNI, who seems like more of a politician and a Trump supporter than someone from the intel community. Does that worry you?

It worries me greatly. The irony is that Donald Trump’s appointees in the intel world—his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats; his director of the FBI, Chris Wray, his director of the CIA, Gina Haspel—have been pretty good about speaking truth to power, even when Trump did not want to hear the truth. They’ve been very good at not allowing America’s intelligence to get politicized—while I’m going to give Mr. Ratcliffe the courtesy of a meeting, I fear that he is being appointed in the mold of a Bill Barr, the attorney general, who basically is simply a loyalist first to Donald Trump and doesn’t maintain that kind of independence.

If there’s ever been a time when everyone says that Russians and others will be back, when we’ve got as many potential conflict spots around the world, we need to make sure that the head of our national intelligence is not going to politicize the intelligence. That intelligence product goes to our military, it goes to the executive, it goes to us in the Congress. It cannot be a political product. And we’ve got to make sure that the intelligence community is going to be willing to speak truth to power, and that means telling Donald Trump the truth, even if he doesn’t want to hear it. And so far it appears to me that Mr. Ratcliffe, who doesn’t have much experience and who seems—based upon press reports—that his audition was based on questioning Mueller and questioning the legitimacy of the Russian’s intervention in our electoral system, is pretty chilling.

What do you see as the biggest threats—or are there any new threats—facing America in 2020?

So I think there are a couple of new threats. One, Russia in 2016 was surprised at how vulnerable our systems were, our electoral systems. And how easy Facebook and Twitter and YouTube were to be manipulated. So I think that playbook is now out there, they’ve used the same tactics in the Brexit vote [and] the French presidential elections. So my fear is we may not only see Russia, we can see Iran, we could potentially see China, who has a great deal of control over a number of their Chinese tech companies, start to use these tools because they’re cheap and effective. I like to point out that if you add up all Russia spent in the Brexit vote, the French presidential elections, and the 2016 American elections, it’s less than the cost of one new F-35 airplane. So Russia and our adversaries, I think, have decided the way to engage with us in conflict is not through straight up old-school military but through cyber activities, misinformation and disinformation, increasingly trying to weaken and interfere, for example with our space communications, and I think Russia will up their game … and others … [It] means there will be more adversaries in 2020.

Second is, I think in 2016 we saw Russia try to misrepresent—the Russian agents misrepresent themselves as Americans on Facebook and Twitter by simply posting fake messages. The next iteration, the next generation of that will be the so-called “deepfake” technology, where an American may not be able to view what his eyes are telling him, because you’ll see an image of you or me or a political figure that may sound like that person but isn’t that person at all.

Now, if McConnell doesn’t allow some of these bills, like the Honest Ads Act or just broader election security bills, to come up, what do you think the Silicon Valley tech firms can do on their own?

Look, we’ve seen progress made by Facebook, Twitter, some progress made by Google. But I don’t think self-regulation, particularly when a regulation may mean they may not be collecting as much information as they like, or self-regulation may mean they have to go against or limit some of the fake content. It goes against their very business model. So I think Facebook has made progress in particular, but some of the tools they have—for example, the ability to access on an easy basis the campaign ads that they promised, that tool is not effective at all.

So at the end of the day, when we’re talking about something as critical as protecting the integrity of our democracy, when Americans lack faith in so many of our institutions to start with, if we don’t go the extra mile and put in place a set of rules and regulations—and god forbid should Russia or Iran or another foreign enterprise massively interfere again—and we didn’t do our duty, then shame on all of us.

This week, two fairly senior Senate Democrats called for impeachment proceedings to begin. Where are you on that? We started this conversation with you saying you don’t want to relitigate 2016, but it seems like there’s this growing chorus amongst Democrats to impeach.

I actually think Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has navigated that challenge very well. I understand the frustrations with President Trump—his activities and tweets and antics. I think, though, the best way we can show that that’s not who we are as Americans is to defeat him at the ballot box in a free and fair election. And what I worry about is if we don’t guarantee that free and fair election, then we haven’t done our job.


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