House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, so we turned to former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin for his take on this extraordinary development.
OZY: Do you feel like Democrats are rushing into impeachment on this Ukraine call?
JM: I would not call this a “rush” — a sentiment to do this has been building for a long time — but they are going into this with some significant blind spots. Having been surprised during my government career when seemingly solid assumptions proved shaky, it makes me a bit nervous that we have not yet seen the transcript of Trump’s conversations with the Ukrainians or the actual substance of the whistleblower’s report, which is said to allege alarming behavior on Trump’s part.
Let me say clearly that I believe Trump has already done enough to earn censure, but an awful lot is being placed on this phone call and the whistleblower as tipping points in this long-running drama. What happens if these are released and do not live up to all the hype? I don’t expect that, but we don’t know. It could be used by Trump supporters then to argue that he is being treated unfairly. Hopefully, before the end of the week, we will get the specific data on those things and also hear from the Acting Director of National Intelligence on Thursday. Then we will have a more complete picture for making judgments.
If we reach the point where we can’t trust anyone, we’re in trouble. Maybe we are.
What does it take for a whistleblower to stick his/her neck out like this? What impact will this have on future whistleblowers?
This is a courageous move by the whistleblower. There is a process for accommodating people with a grievance fairly, and it normally works well. But I am not aware of any previous such report focused on the president of the United States — which leads you to think the person who reported his conduct must have seen something truly alarming. Eventually, we will find out just how much.
I do think this circus atmosphere will discourage future whistleblowers. Both the general counsel at the DNI office and the Department of Justice appear to be arguing that the complaint does not fall within the realm of intelligence activity or concern people under the supervision of the DNI. If their view is upheld or if the issue is murky, the whistleblower might be judged to have acted inappropriately. So much hassle and trouble is wrapped up in this that future whistleblowers will probably hesitate. Which is one reason why at the end of this process, the whistleblower needs to be protected — and that needs to be understood publicly and throughout the intelligence community. Preserving this process is essential to the health and morale of intelligence professionals.
You’ve been in on these kinds of calls with world leaders. How does Trump’s reported behavior square with what you’ve experienced?
I have been in the room when these conversations took place and have read transcripts of them. They are normally very businesslike. It does not mean the president cannot put pressure on the foreign leader if the United States needs something, but I have never heard of the president doing this to serve his domestic political or electoral purposes, as has been reported.
Would it set a bad precedent to release the transcript?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if foreign leaders have the idea that we are going to repeatedly release these, they will be less candid in discussions. So it’s regrettable in that sense. On the other hand, the controversy is now such that it cannot be eased without some transparency regarding the transcript.
How would we know the transcript is accurate? What about releasing audio?
I don’t know whether audio exists. In the end, you have to trust those who released the transcript to ensure its accuracy. Our whole government is premised on an assumption of integrity on the part of leaders and government officials. If we reach the point where we can’t trust anyone, we’re in trouble. Maybe we are.
Where do you see this going from here? What more could Congress learn about this incident than what Trump has already said?
We’re only at the front end of something that’s going to get much messier. Very ugly. I expect Trump to try and turn this on former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden appears to have done nothing wrong, but Trump is probably going to fall back on his 2016 playbook and accuse his potential opponent of corruption, as he did with Hillary Clinton. We are already seeing this in the videos and commentaries put out by Trump’s allies. It may be that the Democrats see moving toward impeachment as the best way to defend against this.
What kind of position does this put Ukraine in?
Ukraine desperately needs the world’s help, and Ukrainians will be the first tell you that they do have a serious internal corruption problem. I heard this from every parliamentary and government official I spoke with on my last trip to Ukraine in 2016. They have serious problems, and the last thing they need is to get sucked into America’s internal political feuds versus focusing on their serious domestic problems. This will be a serious distraction. And to the extent that they are off-balance, they will have more trouble combating Russia’s invasion of their country.