President Trump tried to blackmail the Ukrainian government into investigating his top political rival. Is this a story of an aspiring despot who ham-fistedly uses his presidential power to attack his enemies, or is it fake news?
Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi makes the latter case, in an uncharacteristically sloppy and tendentious article trying to cast doubt on both the whistleblower who originally revealed the story and the entire Trump-Ukraine narrative. It’s a window into a small but influential group of thinkers who have bent themselves into knots trying to avoid agreeing with anti-Trump liberals.
Taibbi’s case basically boils down to the fact that so far the whistleblower, reportedly a CIA officer, has not been mercilessly persecuted, as have most previous whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, and Thomas Drake. “It’s an insult to all of these people, and the suffering they’ve weathered, to frame the ballcarrier in the Beltway’s latest partisan power contest as a whistleblower,” he writes.
And sure, on one level the level of media adulation for this whistleblower is rather shameful given how poorly they treated those others folks, who were every bit as patriotic. (For instance, when the Snowden documents came out, the since-disgraced plagiarist Benny Johnson was writing articles in Buzzfeed about the lurid fantasies intelligence officials were having about murdering him in cold blood.)
But there is a simple and obvious reason the whistleblower has not been prosecuted: They went through the official mechanisms for such things. Instead of sending documents to the press, they reached out to a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee who, per protocol, instructed them to report their concerns to the Intelligence Community Inspector General. The Inspector General then passed them on to Congress, despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to obstruct that process. In other words, the whistleblower didn’t break the law — something Taibbi bizarrely does not even mention.
Now, I am not saying all whistleblowers must go through these channels. Snowden and company likely figured that the legal complaint departments would ignore them, and so went to the press. They were probably right to do so, and America owes them a debt of gratitude. But on the other hand, that does not mean that it is impossible for an official whistleblower complaint to reveal actual wrongdoing. Just because a whistleblowing effort is legal does not mean it is wrong by definition.
This is completely obvious if one considers the actual details of the Ukraine story. The whistleblower complaint says that Trump attempted to “solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” namely by ginning up some investigation of the Biden family. And it’s not just one whistleblower — the story has been confirmed both by lots of reporting and by the memorandum describing the call the White House itself released in a panic. Most recently, we have text messages from top U.S. diplomats extensively discussing the efforts to sic Ukraine on the Bidens.
Taibbi doesn’t mention any of this in the slightest. He also largely elides that Trump and the rest of the Republican Party have been furiously attacking the whistleblower in the press, with people like Lindsey Graham preemptively dismissing reports of even more whistleblowers because of what happened to Brett Kavanaugh.
Taibbi also doesn’t mention Reality Winner, a Russiagate whistleblower who actually was punished severely — with over five years in federal prison for violating the Espionage Act. She sent evidence that the Russian government had hacked an American voting software company and attempted to compromise the emails of dozens of local election officials to The Intercept, which badly botched its e-security protocols and revealed her identity to the F.B.I. I wonder if Taibbi thinks she is just another partisan “ballcarrier.”
At any rate, sometimes things are more complicated than “CIA Good” or “CIA Bad.” It is perfectly possible to believe that the CIA is a monstrous, dysfunctional organization that should be shuttered immediately, as I have argued, and still think that the Ukraine story is an extremely alarming abuse of power. The reason — as is apparently necessary to spell out — is that it is bad for a president to use his vast executive power to gin up politically-motivated investigations. That is near the top of the list of Budding Dictatorship Warning Signs, and it’s very similar to how the fascist Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil. Conversely, just because a CIA officer might be fine with the agency’s history of overthrowing democratic governments, war crimes, torture, and so on, does not mean they are wrong to try to stop Trump from bullying foreign states into investigating whoever happens to win the Democratic primary. (Trump reportedly brought up Elizabeth Warren in a call with China’s President Xi Jinping in June.)
I have been reading Matt Taibbi for years, and he has long been an inspiration. (His reviews of Thomas Friedman’s books are masterpieces I’ve read dozens of times.) But it is beyond senseless to blithely suggest that aimless speculation that the Trump-Ukraine story might be a CIA “palace coup” against Trump “sounds about right.” I hope that reality sinks in at some point.
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