Sep 27, 2019

Friday special edition: The New York Times controversy.

Friday special edition: The New York Times controversy.

Also, how impeachment is playing in the polls.


Tangle is usually a Monday through Thursday newsletter, but every now and then I’ll send out a special Friday edition. Today is one of those days, as it’s been an explosive news week and we received a great question to tackle last night. If you’re new here, be sure to favorite this email or mark it as important so it shows up in your inbox.

Today’s read: 5 minutes.

It’s a shorter-than-usual newsletter, but we’ll cover how the needle has moved on impeachment and where everyone is on the big Ukraine story. If you just signed up and missed Tangle’s coverage of the whistleblower complaint, you can read that here.

DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

What D.C. is talking about.

What else? Donald Trump and impeachment. In today’s world, most Trump stories last hours or a day before they blow over. But the Ukraine story appears to be sticking. Yesterday, The New York Times sparked controversy by publishing details of the whistleblower who filed a complaint against Trump (more on that in today’s reader question). Just hours earlier, Trump had not-so-subtly joked about executing the whistleblower for treason. As details of the complaint and whistleblower crystallize, Republicans are picking sides. So far, the party is staying united around Trump, but fractures are popping up — and public opinion polls around impeachment appear to be shifting rapidly.

What Republicans are saying.

Sen. Lindsey Graham and freshman Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw are harping on the fact this is all secondhand knowledge. Sen. Graham said it is a “coordinated effort to take second-hand information to create a narrative damaging to the president” and Rep. Crenshaw said whether it’s appropriate for Trump to discuss investigating a political opponent on a call with a foreign leader is “simply a political question. But it is a question of style, not legality.”

Perhaps the most high-profile takedown of the whistleblower complaint came from Fred Fleitz, a former chief of staff to the National Security Council. He wrote in a New York Post op-ed that “such an extremely polished whistleblowing complaint is unheard of. This document looks as if this leaker had outside help, possibly from congressional members or staff.” Sean Davis of The Federalist says the whistleblower document and Steele dossier contain the exact same kind of secondhand sourcing of rumors and gossip that got Democrats in trouble during the Russia collusion “hoax.”

Together, the Republican talking points amount to a few simple bullet points: All the sourcing is secondhand, we still don’t know the whistleblower’s identity or political motivations, there’s no explicit quid pro quo and the media continues to refuse to look at the accusations against Biden. Another popular talking point is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters at the United Nations he was not pressured by anyone to reopen the investigation into Joe Biden and his son.

Some other Republicans, perhaps uncomfortable with the contents of the call, have taken to saying they haven’t read the whistleblower complaint at all. Iowa’s Joni Ernst and South Dakota’s John Thune said they hadn’t read the complaint, which is nine pages long and you can read here. Jennifer Haberkorn, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said seven out of the seven GOP Senators she asked said they haven’t read the complaint. The Senate leaves for a two-week recess today.

What Democrats are saying.

What’s it gonna take? The refrain from Democrats is simple: President Trump brought up investigating a top political rival on a phone call that was supposed to be a congratulatory formality with a foreign leader.

Today, the White House finally acknowledged that the transcript of the call was filed in a separate classified system, which Democrats say is proof they understood what Trump had just done. Democrats believe that the messaging around impeachment is simple enough to get through to voters, and their plan is to narrow their impeachment inquiry to Ukraine alone. President Trump can claim there was no quid pro quo explicitly made, but the Democratic take here is that the quid pro quo is implied. If you’re Ukraine’s president, you know you’re on a phone with the president of the United States who is responsible for allocating your military aid. When he asks for something, the implication is that the things he does for you are on the line. And of course Zelensky is saying he felt no pressure; he has a relationship with Trump to maintain for the good of his country.

Now that the Times has outed the whistleblower as a CIA officer, Democrats are also insisting the credibility of the complaint is even stronger. Most Democratic politicians have taken to calling on their Republican colleagues to quit the act and finally say what they really think of Trump. So far, Mitt Romney has been the only outspoken Republican critic of Trump, but a lot of Democrats were sharing his words yesterday, noting that the worst kept secret in D.C. is how many Republicans share those feelings but are too scared to speak up. “Mr. Romney’s public statements reflect what many in his party believe privately but are almost uniformly unwilling to say,” The New York Times reported. Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake threw gasoline on that fire when he said “at least 35” Republican senators would privately vote for President Trump’s impeachment.

My take.

A lot of friends have texted me asking what the chances are that Trump will be impeached. I’d say they’re better today than they’ve ever been, but they’re still pretty low. The odds of him being removed from office are even lower. 14 House Democrats still don’t even support impeachment and remember: impeachment doesn’t mean removed from office. You can read more on how impeachment would go down here.

The next question, inevitably, is “what would it take?” And my response to that is it’ll take a major swing in public opinion. Some Trump supporters may be unwilling to admit this (or perhaps they revel in it), but I can assure you the rumors about Republicans “true” feelings on Trump are well-known in D.C. Republican support for Trump in Congress is based almost entirely on the overwhelming public support Trump enjoys from Republican voters. If he loses that, politicians in Congress will jump ship — and they’ll do it fast. Early polling on impeachment post-Ukraine has shown a huge swing upward in support for impeachment, but it’s hit the threshold that mostly includes Democrats in America.

If it breaks through that threshold, and Republicans or Trump’s base start backing impeachment in polls, I imagine some GOP senators and representatives will bail on Trump with little regret (so long as they don’t think it’ll cost them an election). But a swing like that in the polling seems very unlikely to me, so — for now — my guess is Republicans batten down the hatches and try to weather the storm until the next insane news cycle blows up.


Your questions, answered.

Tangle is about answering reader questions and making sure you don’t have to wade through the news to find the information you want. If you have a question you want answered, simply reply to this email and write in!

Q: Why would the NYT publish information about the whistleblower? Can you help me understand this process from an investigative journalist perspective? I don’t presume to know there are many CIA agents, but assuming it’s a small list, couldn’t this person be identified quickly? Also while the explanation they provided speaks to the credibility of the whistleblower, doesn’t it also fuel far-right conspiracies of the “deep state” narrative?

- Andrew, Tampa Bay, FL

Tangle: Hey Andrew, thanks for writing in. You’ve got a multi-part question here and I’ll try to tackle it from the top down. First, the context: Yesterday, as speculation about the whistleblower who filed a former complaint about Trump was running rampant, The New York Times published a detailed story describing the whistleblower according to several unnamed sources. Amongst those details were that the whistleblower was a CIA officer who had worked detail at the White House, had an intimate knowledge of Ukraine and some obvious legal background. You can read their story here.

I could speculate about why The New York Times published this information, but you don’t have to take it from me. They issued a statement defending their decision. The Times executive editor said the following: “The role of the whistle-blower, including his credibility and his place in the government, is essential to understanding one of the most important issues facing the country — whether the president of the United States abused power and whether the White House covered it up.”

As more criticism poured in, Banquet added this: “The president and some of his supporters have attacked the credibility of the whistle-blower, who has presented information that has touched off a landmark impeachment proceeding. The president himself has called the whistle-blower’s account a “political hack job.” We decided to publish limited information about the whistle-blower — including the fact that he works for a nonpolitical agency and that his complaint is based on an intimate knowledge and understanding of the White House — because we wanted to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not he is credible.”

So that’s the Times’ reasoning. A lot of reporters and readers didn’t like that reasoning, and some even started a “subscription cancellation” movement. My thoughts are a bit more nuanced. I think it was an incredibly difficult decision, and it’s safe to assume other papers had this info and didn’t run it. Yes, it puts the agent in some danger. Yes, we will probably find out who he or she is pretty soon. And yes, there will undoubtedly be people who want to harm that person (there’s already a $50,000 reward being floated by conservative activists to ID the whistleblower). But I agree with Banquet that the information is pertinent to the story, that the identity of the whistleblower is key to evaluating the complaint and that the public interest is high enough in this story to justify reporting it (safely).

These decisions are not made lightly, but there is no universal standard or technical procedure. The clearest evidence for that is the fact that The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal had this info (according to some reporters I’ve spoken to) and decided not to publish it. Usually, it’s just a group of very experienced editors and reporters sitting in a room and arguing until they land somewhere. They always, always, always seek guidance from the relevant agency, in this case the CIA. According to the story, the CIA and the whistleblower’s lawyer implored the Times not to run the story. That’s pretty significant, and usually, when the CIA, FBI, or a military agency tells an outlet they will be putting someone in danger, the paper in question won’t run it. So it is definitely notable that the Times received that advice, published that warning, and still ran the information anyway. And that’s what sparked this outrage.

As for how the fact this person is a CIA agent will play — yes, I think it will feed into the “deep state” narrative. But that was already happening. The refrains of the “deep state” trying to take down Trump are ubiquitous these days, and mainstream Republican senators were sounding the “deep state” horn three days ago when we know absolutely zilch about the whistleblower.

Finally, I’ll add one important detail: rumors about the identity of the whistleblower were already swirling. Presumably, the White House knew who this was — or at least had a vague idea — well before the New York Times posted the story. If the Times had three sources on record then the White House almost certainly had at least an educated guess on the identity of the whistleblower. The complaint alone makes it clear this person had an intimate knowledge of Ukrainian politics and was closely following the news there. That, and a simple elimination game of who was on the call, who was close enough to the White House to hear the call and who would be “disloyal” enough to file this complaint, all probably narrowed the search. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I’d be shocked if we don’t have a public ID of the whistleblower in the next week or two. Then again, I thought the same thing when the New York Times ran an anonymous op-ed from a member of Trump’s administration criticizing the president, and a year later we still don’t know who the author of that piece was.

In my effort to give you a full spectrum of ideas, here is some of the criticism of the paper’s decision from notable folks in the media:

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