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Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Pence, Schiff, State’s inspector general … and Nickelback?

The scandal around Trump, Ukraine, and the whistleblower has reached a point where a single day can bring multiple significant developments, each on somewhat separate topics.

Just on Wednesday, the State Department’s inspector general headed to Congress for a mysterious briefing, we learned that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) had early word of the whistleblower’s concerns, new details emerged about Vice President Mike Pence’s role in Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine, and a Washington Post story raised new questions about the supposed transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president.

And then there was also the, uh, Nickelback video Trump tweeted.

The news continued into Thursday morning as well, when Trump decided to openly declare that Ukraine’s president should investigate the Bidens — apparently deciding to do the scandalous thing in public, perhaps to make it seem like there’s nothing scandalous about it at all.

Trump openly urged Ukraine (and also China) to investigate the Bidens

During a Wednesday press conference, Trump was posed a simple question by Jeff Mason of Reuters: What did he hope to achieve when he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens? But Trump rambled and dodged in his lengthy response, and grew irate when Mason tried to follow up.

Speaking to reporters again Thursday morning before leaving the White House to travel to Florida, Trump got a do-over. And it appears he has now decided on a clearer message: He’d just do the scandalous thing in public and assert there’s nothing wrong with it.

“Well I would think that if they were honest about it they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens,” Trump said.

He added: “I would say that President Zelensky — if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens.”

Trump continued, “Because nobody has any doubt that they weren’t crooked. That was a crooked deal 100 percent. He had no knowledge of energy, didn’t know the first thing about it, all of a sudden he’s getting $50,000 a month plus a lot of other things. Nobody has any doubt. And they got rid of a prosecutor who was a very tough prosecutor, they got rid of him.”

It is indeed true that, in 2014, Hunter Biden had no apparent qualifications to be handsomely paid to sit on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. But Trump is lying when he talks about the “tough prosecutor” — Viktor Shokin was pushed out due to wide agreement among Western officials that he wasn’t doing enough to fight corruption. There’s zero evidence that Vice President Biden tried to push him out to somehow help his son.

Overall, when assessing the genuineness of Trump’s professed outrage about the Bidens, it’s helpful to keep in mind that Trump himself is also regularly accepting payments from foreign sources to his company, while president, and so are the Trump children.

But the bigger news is that Trump has decided that his best political defense is to be out in the open about demands for foreign investigations of his political opponents.

He even said that Chinese president Xi Jinping should investigate the Bidens as well (Hunter had business ties in China too). “China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” Trump said, seconds after discussing the trade war and saying that if China doesn’t do “what we want, we have tremendous power.”

We learned the whistleblower went to a House Intelligence Committee staffer

Many political observers have noticed that, as the whistleblower scandal unfolded, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff appeared to be quite informed about what was going on.

For instance, Schiff was calling attention to the possibility that Trump was withholding military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden back in late August — more than two weeks before the public had any idea about the whistleblower complaint’s existence.

On Wednesday, the New York Times’ Julian Barnes, Michael Schmidt, and Matthew Rosenberg revealed that Schiff indeed did have a heads up.

Per the Times’ account, the whistleblower (reportedly a CIA officer) first registered his concerns through an internal CIA process but became disturbed by how the administration was handling it. So he then went to a House Intelligence Committee staffer to ask what to do. The whistleblower gave the House staffer some idea of the complaint’s nature, though the account was “vague.” The House staffer advised him to find a lawyer and file a complaint with an inspector general, which the whistleblower did.

Schiff himself did not meet with the whistleblower, but the Intelligence Committee staffer did tell him some information about the complaint.

Trump and his allies have seized on this to argue that there was some impropriety here — that the whistleblower was in cahoots with Schiff and House Democrats, making this whole thing part of a partisan plot to bring Trump down.

In fact, this is how the whistleblower process is supposed to function. An executive branch employee with concerns reached out to the appropriate committee in Congress and got the standard and appropriate advice (find a lawyer, tell the inspector general). And of course, the substance of the complaint was eventually confirmed by the call summary document the White House itself released.

Schiff had, however, previously denied that his team had contact with the whistleblower. After the Times report revealing that wasn’t true, Schiff told the Daily Beast he meant to say the person hadn’t yet come in to testify, and said, “I regret that I wasn’t much more clear.”

The State Department inspector general headed to Capitol Hill

Earlier this week, Steve Linick, the inspector general for the State Department, told Congress he had an “urgent” briefing for them — a briefing that took place Wednesday behind closed doors.

What ensued was, apparently, confusing. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the only lawmaker present, emerged to say that far from being urgent, the briefing was an “irrelevant distraction.”

The briefing focused on a 40-page “packet” of information related to Ukraine that had been given to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo several months ago. It included conspiratorial allegations about Joe and Hunter Biden’s Ukraine work, as well as former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. The envelope, in odd writing, was said to be be from “The White House.”

It appears that at least some of the packet originated with … Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. According to CNN, Giuliani gave the documents to the White House, which passed them on to Pompeo. They eventually made their way to the State Department’s top lawyer and then the inspector general and, reportedly, the FBI as well.

The details here are still murky, but the gist appears to be that Giuliani or his Ukrainian contacts put together a shady set of allegations, smearing both the Bidens and Ambassador Yovanovitch, that then made their way to the top levels of the US government. So it may have been an inappropriate effort to influence US policy or personnel with disinformation that was taken seriously by top Trump figures like Pompeo (Yovanovitch was recalled from her post in May).

Still, the nature of the IG’s investigation isn’t entirely clear: Is he investigating the packet as a problematic influence effort from Trump’s personal lawyer or is he taking the underlying allegations about the Bidens and Yovanovitch seriously?

A Washington Post story raised questions about the “transcript” of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president

Last week, the Trump Administration released what appeared to be a “transcript” of the now-infamous July phone call in which Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. Except there was a note on the bottom of the first page making clear this was “not a verbatim transcript.” And the document also included some ellipses in curious places — raising questions about whether the document was altered to hide damaging information.

On Wednesday night, the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, Craig Timberg, and Drew Harwell published a story that added to those questions. They write:

Current and former U.S. officials studying the document pointed to several elements that, they say, indicate that the document may have been handled in an unusual way.

Those include the use of ellipses — punctuation indicating that information has been deleted for clarity or other reasons — that traditionally have not appeared in summaries of presidential calls with foreign leaders, according to the current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the elaborate, non-public process.

The Post team also points out that the transcript seemed rather brief for a call that supposedly lasted 30 minutes and that “the document additionally carries classification markings that Situation Room staffers do not normally add when they create a word-for-word transcript.” Their story concludes with this eyebrow-raising kicker:

“The one that was released is not the one the Situation Room created,” said one person familiar with the creation of records of calls with foreign leaders who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the secretive process. “That’s just not possible.”

Part of the whistleblower complaint was specifically about improper White House handling of the records of this call. “I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced — as is customary — by the White House Situation Room,” the complaint reads.

This new Washington Post story does not directly allege or prove any impropriety related to the call summary document. But these reporters’ sources do appear to think there’s something not quite right here, so stay tuned.

People close to Mike Pence claim Mike Pence did nothing wrong

President Donald Trump yields the podium to Vice President Mike Pence at an event in The East Room at the White House.Mark Wilson/Getty
US President Donald Trump invites Vice President Mike Pence to speak during a reception to honor Hispanic Heritage Month, in The East Room at the White House on September 27, 2019.

Meanwhile, a separate Washington Post story by Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Ashley Parker zeroed in on the role of Vice President Mike Pence in this whole saga.

The whistleblower complaint alleged that Trump ordered Pence to cancel a planned trip to Ukraine for President Zelensky’s inauguration in May — and the Post story confirms that’s true.

Pence was not himself on Trump’s phone call with Zelensky on July 25 but his top national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, was, meaning a description of the call would likely have shown up in Pence’s briefing book, per the Post.

Then, on September 2, Vice President Mike Pence met President Zelensky in Warsaw. At the meeting, Pence reportedly told Zelensky that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid would be withheld unless Ukraine did a bigger job combating “corruption.”

At a press conference afterward, the Associated Press’s Jill Colvin asked: “Can you assure Ukraine that the hold-up of that money has absolutely nothing to do with efforts, including by Rudy Giuliani, to try to dig up dirt on the Biden family?” Pence conspicuously did not make that assurance, instead saying, “as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption.”

So what did Pence know, exactly, about Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Biden — and was he an active player in the effort?

“Officials close to Pence” insist for this Post story, though, that Pence had no idea what was going on — though to do so they have to concede that he either didn’t do the required reading or didn’t understand it. The Post team writes:

Officials close to Pence contend that he traveled to Warsaw for a meeting with Zelensky on Sept. 1 probably without having read — or at least fully registered — the transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with the leader of Ukraine.

There appear to be only two possibilities here: that Pence is remarkably clueless or that he was an active participant.

Trump tweeted a clip of a Nickelback music video altered to include Biden that Twitter then took down due to a copyright complaint

 @RealDonaldTrump

Yes … this is a real thing that happened. It’s silly.

But if you really want to know, the video was a reference to a long-running internet meme involving a clip from the 2005 music video for Nickelback’s “Photograph,” in which singer Chad Kroeger holds up a photograph, and sings “Look at this photograph!” The meme involves altering the photograph (originally of Kroeger and his producer) for humorous ends.

So whoever made the clip Trump tweeted imposed, as the photograph, an image of Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and Hunter’s business associate Devon Archer, golfing together. The intended “gotcha” was that Biden had said he was unaware of his son’s overseas business dealings, but here he is golfing with Archer, who the video called a Ukrainian oil executive.

Devon Archer is actually American, so no, this is not an instance of Biden golfing with a Ukrainian oligarch. But Archer was Hunter’s business partner for his overseas work and helped made the connection that got him and later Hunter on the board of the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. (Archer is also a former Abercrombie and Fitch model who went to Yale and worked at Citibank, per the New Yorker’s Adam Entous.)

However, Twitter soon took down the video after a request from the copyright owner of the video, leaving this curious incident for future historians to puzzle over.

Author: Andrew Prokop

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