News Brief: Trump-Ukraine Call, Joseph Maguire, Pentagon Letter

Sep 26, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 4:47 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today we may learn more about President Trump's overseas effort to gain dirt on a political opponent. The director of national intelligence testifies before a House committee.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. Lawmakers have questions about a whistleblower inside of the government. That person filed a complaint with the intelligence community's inspector general. And that complaint moved to the House of Representatives to start an impeachment inquiry. Now, this story is moving very quickly, so here's a recap of what we know.

President Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine this year, then he called Ukraine's president. Notes of that conversation show the president repeatedly asked for information about Democrat Joe Biden. The release of this phone call came yesterday as Trump and Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, met at the U.N. And Zelenskiy said he didn't feel pushed by Trump.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: We had, I think, good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things. And I - so I think - and you read it - that nobody push it - push me. Yes.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In other words, no pressure.

INSKEEP: You hear President Trump at the end there making his view clear. No pressure, he says. NPR's Tim Mak begins our coverage. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So when I read these five pages, I guess Zelenskiy is not completely incorrect. They discussed a number of things, but it does seem the essence of the call is Joe Biden. Trump congratulates Zelenskiy on winning election. They discuss ambassadors. And then Trump says the U.S. supports Ukraine, but Ukraine is not necessarily reciprocating. And then what?

MAK: So the Ukrainian president indicates interest in more U.S. military aid, specifically his interest in the future in purchasing Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States. Immediately after this, the president says a memorable line - quote, "I would like you to do us a favor, though."

In the conversation that follows, President Trump urges Ukraine's leader to work with Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr. And he asked the president of Ukraine to investigate unsubstantiated rumors about Joe Biden and his son.

INSKEEP: Now, how is President Trump defending himself when - and this is a document released by the White House - when he is on the record there asking Zelenskiy again and again to investigate Biden and says, get in touch with my personal lawyer about this?

MAK: So Trump's immediate reaction has been to label the Democratic response as an overreach. Here's what the president said yesterday afternoon at the United Nations.

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TRUMP: When they look at the information, it's a joke. Impeachment for that, when you have a wonderful meeting or you have a wonderful phone conversation?

MAK: You know, the president almost seems to view this transcript as complimentary to him. You mentioned that the White House is the body that put out this document. Republicans have also argued that there is no explicit quid pro quo in the transcript, that the president did not directly condition U.S. military aid to Ukraine launching an investigation...

INSKEEP: They just talked about U.S. aid, and then he asked for a favor...

MAK: Right. So...

INSKEEP: ...I mean, they didn't just - didn't actually have a verb that connects them, but they're right there.

MAK: The sequence of events actually does suggest a quid pro quo. But Democrats will say that even if there wasn't a direct exchange outlined, the president still asked a foreign leader to disrupt a potential 2020 opponent and that's wrong.

INSKEEP: OK. So this conversation - or the notes of this conversation, this is part - but maybe not all - of a whistleblower complaint. What has happened with that?

MAK: So the whistleblower complaint was just released to Congress Wednesday afternoon. It's private right now. But here's what House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said yesterday after he reviewed it behind closed doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: I found the allegations deeply disturbing. I also found them very credible. I can understand why the inspector general found them credible even without the benefit yet of the inspector general's full analysis.

INSKEEP: Oh, the inspector general, that's the person who received this whistleblower complaint. Go on.

MAK: That's right. Schiff also said that the complaint provided information for the committee to follow up on and that the content seemed to escalate this beyond the president's call with Ukrainian leader, that there are other topics that might be involved at all - also in the whistleblower complaint for further review.

INSKEEP: We know how upset Democrats are. What are Republicans saying?

MAK: Well, the president's staunchest reporters are - sorry - the president's staunchest supporters are holding the line. But there are some moderate Republicans, like Senators Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney, who are expressing alarm at the scandal.

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak.

Now, who is the intelligence official at the center of the inquiry today?

KING: Joseph Maguire is new in the job of director of national intelligence. He became acting director when he replaced Dan Coats. Now, Coats was a former senator. He's well-known in Washington for his quiet independence from the president. But we know less about Joseph Maguire.

INSKEEP: So NPR's Jackie Northam has been looking into his past. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did he end up being the person who is acting director of national intelligence?

NORTHAM: Well, Joseph Maguire stepped into a tough job, as you just mentioned. You know, he replaced the previous DNI, Dan Coats, who resigned and had tussled with President Trump, who is critical of the intelligence community. The White House forced out Coats as deputy, as well, and so Maguire was appointed as DNI. He was not nominated to the job.

He is 67 years old. He's a career Navy officer and retired as a three-star admiral. His entire career was spent in special operations. He was a Navy SEAL. So this world of national secrets is not new to him. His most recent job before DNI was director of National Counterterrorism Center. From all accounts, Maguire is well-respected. But he's only been in the job in an acting capacity for just over a month.

INSKEEP: OK. So career professional but there at the president's pleasure even more so and not yet confirmed by the Senate. What has his role been in this story?

NORTHAM: Well, he's got a critical role. You know? By the time he received the whistleblower report, as we mentioned earlier, the inspector general of the intelligence community had already reviewed it and found it to be both critical - credible - pardon me - and urgent. At that point, by law, Maguire was really just supposed to pass the report on to Congress, but he decided to seek legal advice.

And he referred the whistleblower's report to the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, which determined that it didn't fall under Maguire's jurisdiction as DNI and that he did not need to send it to Congress. And you know, Steve, ever since the whistleblowers controversy blew up, Maguire has come under enormous scrutiny. And many Democrats, you know, have been accusing him of covering up the report, protecting the administration.

INSKEEP: How has he responded?

NORTHAM: Well, a couple of days ago, Maguire issued a statement saying he wanted to make it clear that he upheld his responsibility to follow the law every step of the way and that he was committed to protecting whistleblowers and making sure each complaint is handled properly. And today he'll have an opportunity, you know, to make that point when he meets with Congress.

INSKEEP: What has he said about news reports suggesting that he was trying to be independent from the president and even made a threat?

NORTHAM: Well, The Washington Post issued a report saying, based on current and former U.S. officials, that Maguire had threatened to resign if he was constrained in any way from testifying. Immediately after that story appeared, Maguire put out a very strong statement denying it. The Post's editor, Marty Baron, says they stand by their story.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jackie Northam.

Now, a big part of this story is the almost $400 million in military aid from the United States to Ukraine. The White House, earlier this year, blocked that aid.

KING: And President Trump's request to investigate Joe Biden came only days later. So why did the president freeze the money? In the past couple of days, he has given some conflicting accounts. Here he is on Monday saying that the delay was about corruption.

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TRUMP: We want to make sure that country is honest. It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption - why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt? One of the reasons the new president got elected is he was going to stop corruption.

KING: And then a day later, the president said the delay was about other countries not paying their share.

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TRUMP: My complaint has always been - and I'd withhold again, and I'll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine because they're not doing it, just the United States. We're putting up the bulk of the money. And I'm asking, why is that?

INSKEEP: So different explanations from the president. And we have reporting this morning that seems to undercut them. NPR's David Welna is on the line. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is the letter that you obtained from the U.S. military?

WELNA: So this was a letter sent by the Pentagon to the chairman of four congressional committees in May. It came from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood. And in it, he certifies to these committees, as he's required by law, that Ukraine has undertaken sufficient reforms for decreasing corruption and increasing accountability in order to qualify for some of the - some $250 billion in security assistance from the Pentagon to help Ukraine defend itself against a pro-Russian separatist insurgency.

In essence, the Pentagon was telling Congress that corruption was not a reason to hold up that money, which, as it turns out, is quite at odds with what President Trump has been saying.

INSKEEP: Yeah. The president has said this is all about corruption. Of course, his critics have noted the only alleged corruption that he seemed to be interested in was this several years old and largely discredited story that happens to involve his political opponent. But you're saying the Pentagon - so the administration itself, in effect, and the career military people looked at this and said Ukraine is actually improving the issue of corruption.

So the president, perhaps knowing this - I don't know - changed his explanation, said it was really about being upset that the U.S. was paying too much and European allies are not paying. Is there information about that explanation?

WELNA: Right. So if he's withholding this money because European allies aren't kicking in their fair share, you would think his administration would be leaning on those countries to do more. So I checked with more than half a dozen European embassies here in Washington to see if they'd been pressured to increase their contributions to Ukraine, and not one of them reported anything of the kind.

In fact, several pointed out that the European Union has already given Ukraine $15 billion in economic assistance, which is about 10 times as much as the U.S. has provided Ukraine in security over the past five years.

INSKEEP: I just want to be clear on this, David Welna. It sounds like you listened to the president. You looked into what he had to say, and both of his explanations have fallen apart. Is that saying too much?

WELNA: I don't think that's saying too much. They certainly don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny. And you know, Trump is facing accusations that the real purpose for withholding this aid was to pressure Ukrainian President Zelenskiy into conducting an investigation into the affairs of Joe Biden and his son Hunter. So this could get quite interesting before Congress.

INSKEEP: David, thanks so much for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Welna.

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