POLITICS

Releasing The Ukraine Transcript Isn't Enough. Where's The Whistleblower Complaint?

During the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon tried to release transcripts instead of audiotapes — and the courts struck him down.

The White House is considering releasing a transcript of President Donald Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, in which Trump pressed the foreign leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s family. 

Officials may be hoping that this move quells some of the controversy over whether Trump is, once again, asking a foreign government to help him win an election.

But people shouldn’t get too distracted by the transcript. While having that document is important, the administration is still refusing to release the whistleblower complaint that set off these revelations about Trump’s conduct. 

“In general, if Trump is refusing to go along with one request and willing to go along with another, we’re probably not asking for enough. We can’t fully investigate the extent of what happened here without hearing directly from the whistleblower, or at least being able to view his complaint in full. And the House Democrats shouldn’t settle for anything less than that,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice. 

At issue is whether Trump illegally tried to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival — 2020 Democratic frontrunner Biden. For months, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been pushing the unfounded theory that Biden, as vice president, pressured Ukraine to fire the country’s chief prosecutor to prevent the prosecutor from investigating a Ukrainian gas company with ties to his son Hunter Biden. 

There are plenty of reasons the White House might not want the whistleblower complaint to come out. It could have more details that go beyond what’s in a transcript. It might have other instances of impropriety by the president.

On July 25, the day after former special counsel Robert Mueller’s underwhelming testimony on Capitol Hill, Trump called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and asked him roughly eight times to help Giuliani investigate the Bidens, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. 

Weeks after the phone call, a whistleblower filed a still-secret complaint with the intelligence community inspector general, reporting that Trump made a “promise” to a foreign leader. The inspector general deemed the complaint “credible” and “urgent,” meaning it should have been passed on to congressional watchdogs. Instead, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, with assistance from the Justice Department and the White House, has blocked lawmakers from accessing the whistleblower complaint. 

House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wants Maguire to testify on Thursday and hand over the complaint. Maguire so far said he won’t show up because “he is not available on such short notice.”

There are plenty of reasons the White House might not want the whistleblower complaint to come out. It could have more details that go beyond what’s in a transcript. It might have other instances of impropriety by the president. It’s not clear ― because the administration is refusing to give it to Congress. 

“The whistleblower complaint absolutely has to come out. It’s very clear that Congress not only has a right but has a responsibility to this material,” said Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser. 

There are indications that the Trump call with Zelensky may be a tipping point for some Democrats who have been reluctant to support impeachment. Moderate Democratic House members are talking about getting on board, and on Sunday, Schiff noted that while he’s been “reluctant” to support impeachment, he may be changing his mind. 

“If the president is essentially withholding military aid, at the same time that he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit, that is, providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is co-equal to the evil that that conduct represents,” he said on CNN. 

The whistleblower complaint absolutely has to come out. It’s very clear that Congress not only has a right but has a responsibility to this material. Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser

By releasing only a transcript, Trump would be taking a page out of President Richard Nixon’s playbook. 

In October 1973, a federal appeals court ruled that Nixon had to release White House tape recordings to Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon, who constantly recorded conversations inside the White House, knew it was likely there was incriminating information on the tapes, so he scrambled to find a way to prevent their release. He proposed an alternative that came to be known as the Stennis Compromise: Instead of giving Cox the audio recordings, he would allow a neutral third party to listen to the tapes and summarize what he heard. The Nixon administration chose Sen. John Stennis — a 72-year-old, partially deaf, segregationist Democrat from Mississippi — to listen to the tapes.

“When we heard that so-called compromise, the reaction was astonishment,” Phil Lacovara, counsel to Cox, said on Slate’s Slow Burn podcast. “It immediately struck me as being kind of a con job.” 

The standoff over the release of the tapes prompted the Friday Night Massacre. The day after Cox rejected the compromise, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson resigned instead. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus did the same. Solicitor General Robert Bork eventually fired Cox, who was replaced by Leon Jaworski. 

Even then, Nixon continued his fight to withhold the audiotapes. When the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed dozens of recordings, Nixon instead offered edited transcripts. When Jaworski got a federal judge to issue a subpoena for audio recordings, Nixon refused to comply. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which in 1974 ruled that Nixon had to turn over the tapes. One of the tapes, recorded six days after the Watergate break-in, proved Nixon asked administration officials to pressure the CIA director to ask the acting head of the FBI to stop investigating the Watergate break in. 

Nixon announced his resignation three days later. 

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