President Donald Trump predictably tweeted “fake news” again Thursday over a volley of stories having to do with what he said to a foreign leader that so alarmed someone in the intelligence community that it compelled them to file a whistleblower complaint.
The story had been percolating for five days, but it wasn’t until Wednesday night that the Washington Post broke the news that the complaint involved Trump’s communications with a foreign leader and included a promise regarded as “so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community.” NBC News’ Ken Dilanian confirmed the story soon after along with other outlets.
On Wednesday, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC covered a Capitol Hill press conference with House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), who said that the inspector general found that the complaint was “urgent” and “credible,” yet its contents were still being withheld from Congress. His message: Someone is trying to keep this all secret.
“We do know that the Department of Justice has been involved in the decision to withhold that information from Congress,” Schiff told reporters. “We do not know, because we cannot get an answer, about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress. We do not have the complaint. We do not know whether the press reports are accurate or inaccurate about the contents of that complaint.”
It was Schiff who first disclosed the existence of the whistleblower complaint, when on Friday the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, to hand it over. He has not, and the details remained vague, as they still are today.
CNN reported that the White House and the Justice Department advised Maguire to withhold the complaint.
The story has either the makings of a new bombshell involving Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders or a story with so many convoluted legal angles that it’s too difficult to command public attention.
Trump’s initial reaction is no surprise, given his public suspicions of the intelligence world and his supporters characterization of it as the “deep state.”
He tweeted on Thursday, “Another Fake News story out there – It never ends! Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!
“….Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”
Others feared that the revelations of the complaint’s contents could undermine the whistleblower system, “which only works unless people keep it quiet until it is adjudicated,” Mike Rogers, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee and now a CNN analyst and host, said on the network.
But this is also just the type of story that is irresistible to media speculation, theorizing and scrutiny of just who Trump was talking to and what was said or promised, even if the president is labelling it “fake news” that “never ends.” Was it Vladimir Putin? Was in Kim Jong Un? Or someone else altogether.
Trump not only has a propensity to label news as “fake,” but to cast doubt on the use of unnamed sources and blast journalistic mistakes as further evidence that the media is against him. So the risks are great as news outlets scramble to report out the story and turn to national security experts to explain what is happening.
Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama and an NBC contributor, told Deadline that “there is always a temptation, and I fall victim to it as well, to read the tea leaves and play amateur analyst to figure out what is at the base of the allegation.”
The real danger, he said, would be if the complaint never came to light, as was entirely possible. The fact that a whistleblower complaint was filed at all was regarded as something highly unusual if not unprecedented. And even the vague details that have been disclosed, that the complaint was deemed “credible” and “urgent,” are a signal that there is “something quite disturbing at the heart of this,” Price said.