MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 25th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up, Washington Wednesday.
Washington is consumed with impeachment talk this week—but this time it isn’t about Russia. It involves a neighboring country, Ukraine, and specifically what President Trump said to that country’s incoming president—reportedly urging him to investigate Joe Biden’s son.
Here to help us break this down is Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Henry, good morning!
HENRY OLSEN, GUEST: Good morning!
BASHAM: We’ve reported on bits of this story in our newscast, but it’s come out one piece at a time. So let’s start at the beginning. What do we know at this point?
OLSEN: Pretty much all we know is that the president did two things. He ordered a stop to military aid that had been scheduled to go to the Ukraine sometime this summer. And he subsequently had a phone conversation with the incoming president—Volodymyr Zelensky—in which he asked the president to step up efforts to combat corruption. Everything else is rumor or suggestion. But those are the two things that we know happened.
BASHAM: Now, President Trump said he will release the transcript of that call with Ukraine’s president sometime today. He says it was “totally appropriate.”
He also says the decision to temporarily withhold aid was because European countries aren’t paying enough to help Ukraine. Is that a valid argument?
OLSEN: Well, it’s the argument he’s making now. It’s not the one he’s made prior to today. The money has been released. I guess that’s a third thing we know. So the Ukrainians do have the money and they need the money in order to buy military equipment to combat Russian finance insurgents in the eastern part of their country. Whether or not it’s something that actually motivated the president at the time we might find out later, but right now that’s just a guess.
BASHAM: So, if what he’s saying, let’s say, is accurate and truthful, is it a valid argument in that case?
OLSEN: Well, I think it’s a valid argument in the sense that helping the Ukraine is a multilateral effort and it should be multilaterally financed. It’s not clear to me the legal authority the president had to hold up the aid, which had been appropriated by Congress. But certainly with respect to helping the Ukraine, the United States should be sharing the load in some way that is proportional to the rest of the NATO countries who are supporting the same endeavor.
BASHAM: And how about the point of contention about the whistleblower complaint that brought this to light. Because I think for a lot of people like me whose level of understanding is what I’m seeing on Twitter, that’s a little confusing.
OLSEN: Well, the whole whistleblower complaint is confusing. Usually a whistleblower is somebody who has direct knowledge of something that is wrong or a violation of a law and uses protections under the law in order to start an investigation without reprisal. We don’t know how accurate that is in this case.
We know—or we believe we know—that a complaint alleging whistleblower protection has been filed, but we don’t know who this person is. We don’t know what knowledge that they claim to initiate it. And we don’t know whether or not it’s in fact a valid claim. So, the facts are way behind what’s being said on the internet at this point.
BASHAM: Well, I mean, I have heard on both sides I know that Nancy Pelosi is citing a law that the director of intelligence “shall” give whistleblower information to intelligence committees in Congress. On the flip side, I’m hearing that this is nothing more than a game of telephone where someone overheard something and reported it, but that’s not something that’s actionable.
OLSEN: Right. And that’s the question. Without knowing what the acting DCI knows, it may be that he has determined this is not a valid whistleblower complaint. Or it may be that he is in violation of the law. Or maybe something in between. We just don’t know right now because we know very little about the facts. We know a lot about the rumors.
BASHAM: This sounds sort of familiar.
OLSEN: Welcome to Washington in the Trump administration.
BASHAM: Speaking of that, in the Trump administration, how about in other administrations? Is there any historical context for this situation?
OLSEN: Yeah, I can’t recall anything like this in the sense of involving a whistleblower complaint on a presidential phone call. Certainly there’s in recent times no shortage of allegations of presidential and administration’s malfeasance, misfeasance, and incompetence. But as far as this particular angle, I gotta say, this is a new one for me.
BASHAM: How about the fact that this week we’re seeing a number of Democrats previously opposed to impeachment—or let’s say noncommittal—they’re now coming out in favor of it. Do you think that makes it more likely that House Democrats vote to impeach the president?
OLSEN: If they investigate and they don’t have more than they have right now, I think it’s going to be a very difficult vote for a number of Democrats because they’ll be voting to convict on what’s essentially circumstantial evidence. But unlike most of the members of the United States House of Representatives, I don’t think we should prejudge what the hearings will say.
BASHAM: Well, and it’s funny because we’re not hearing much from Republicans outside of Senator Mitt Romney. I know he’s saying he’s concerned about this. But the other Republicans have been very quiet. Are you hearing anything from that side of the aisle that if something comes from it, in that case we will take a new look at the facts?
OLSEN: No. Republicans are trying to avoid this question. I think they correctly see this as a battle between the Democrats and the White House and they want to see how that battle plays out. They have no control over whether the House will hold impeachment hearings or not. The Senate clearly is not going to hold impeachment hearings and it’s highly unlikely that the intelligence committee will want to hold its own hearings unless and until the House moves first.
So why Senator Romney chose to get out in front of this is his own—he’ll have to answer to that, but the rest of the Republicans are seeing how this game is played between the main players before stepping on the field.
BASHAM: Well, and this may be sort of a “can you read America’s mind” question, but I’m wondering if there isn’t a sort of a boy who cried wolf situation happening here that even if there is something, we’ve been so inundated with the subject that to the average person who kind of hears the news in bits and pieces, they’re thinking this is all part and parcel of what’s already past.
OLSEN: I don’t know if they’ll think it’s stuff that’s already past, but I think the messenger’s been sorely discredited for anyone who is thinking about voting for the president or isn’t already blindly in support of impeachment. There’s definitely a feeling that there are people who have their minds made up, and they have been searching for a thread to hang their desires on.
And the people who want to have these hearings had better hope that they find the smoking gun that they think is out there. Because if they don’t, I think this has the possibility of making President Trump look like a martyr and he’s already, as of today, at a two and a half year high in his job approval rating. If they can’t pin the guy down in a non-debatable way, I think those will go significantly higher.
BASHAM: Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Henry, thanks for your time today.
OLSEN: Thank you for having me on.