Is Trump's presidency under threat? Here's what we know.
The whistleblower complaint, plus a question about whether Trump would profit from war.
Today’s read: 9 minutes.
We dive into the whistleblower complaint, some big Tangle news, and a question about whether Trump would profit from a war in the Middle East. It’s a little bit longer than usual, but there’s a lot to cover.
Screenshot: NYT livestream of Congressional hearing.
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What D.C. is talking about.
The whistleblower complaint. Yesterday, Tangle covered initial reports around the “transcript” of Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. You can read that coverage here. Reminder: someone inside the intelligence community filed a whistleblower complaint that alleged President Trump floating U.S. aid to pressure Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden and his son. We hadn’t seen the whistleblower complaint until last night, when it was finally released after a battle over making it public. Now we have the transcript and the complaint out in public. As I write this newsletter, Joseph Maguire, the Director of National Intelligence, is testifying publicly before Congress on the contents of the whistleblower complaint. Maguire, who Trump has called “tough” and generally seems to have the respect of both parties, says the whistleblower “did the right thing” and characterized the situation as unprecedented. But he’s also criticized news reports about the complaint as erroneous.
What Democrats are saying.
It’s all right here. Believe what your eyes are showing you. The whistleblower complaint alleges that President Trump used his position to pressure Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 election and then tried to cover it up after the fact. While Republicans try to downplay the phone call as blown out of proportion, Democrats are pointing to one section of the complaint that alleges the White House tried to move the official transcript of the call from the typical server for those documents to one that housed highly-sensitive, classified intelligence. “Senior White House Officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call,” the complaint alleges. That detail has the anonymous whistleblower and Democrats claiming the White House understood the gravity of what had just taken place. The complaint also lays out a damning timeline of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and his trips and personal statements regarding Ukraine. The timeline paints a picture that Giuliani was repeatedly in Ukraine trying to lobby associates of Zelensky to open an investigation into Biden and hand over dirt on the top Democratic nominee. The complaint also mentions Attorney General William Barr, alleging he would be involved in the investigation into Biden. Democrats are using that allegation to sound the alarm on the Justice Department, which Barr heads. When the complaint was filed, the Justice Department declined to pursue it further. Now Democrats are asking whether that’s because Barr was implicated in the complaint.
What Republicans are saying.
Depends which Republicans (as usual). Trump loyalists are throwing out a lot of different defenses. One is that whoever this whistleblower is should be prosecuted for leaking the contents of the call. Another is that this will threaten U.S. security and its relationships with allies, who will now fear anytime they talk to POTUS the content of that call will end up in the media. A third is that the contents of the call are not nearly as damning as the media is making them out to be, there have already been several corrections and inaccurate reporting on the story and the transcript does not line up with the whistleblower complaint. Trump and Zelensky engage in what seems like a pretty typical congratulatory call with benign talk of defense and vague promises about the future. Amidst those exchanges, the president asks for a favor, and that favor relates to Ukraine looking into rumors about the company CrowdStrike, which allegedly played a role in covering up who was really responsible for 2016 election interference (there is no hard evidence of this yet, it’s mostly an elaborate right-wing theory. You can read more about the theory here). That President Trump also brings up cleaning out corruption and looking into Biden is not some damning quid pro quo. Instead, these loyalists see it as an obvious conversation to have: Biden is a high-ranking political official who has been accused of untoward behavior in Ukraine. Ukraine is a country trying to root out corruption. Why wouldn’t Trump press this issue? Finally, during his opening statements at Maguire’s hearing today, California representative and Trump nemesis Adam Schiff bizarrely used his time to re-tell the transcript of the call in an overblown, dramatic embellishment. When called out for “making stuff up” later in the hearing, Schiff said he was simply making a “parody” of the president’s corruption. Schiff has consequently been torched by conservatives as a perfect example of how Democrats sensationalize and oversell anything to do with Trump. Other Republicans, namely the never-Trump crowd, seem mostly appalled. They view the complaint and transcript as the damning kind of Trump action that they all have been warning about since 2015. Yesterday, Republican Senators said they were “baffled” by the decision to release the call transcripts, which they viewed did not view as helping Trump’s case.
Proceed with caution. Much like I said yesterday, the transcript and now the full complaint is not good for President Trump. To me, they pretty explicitly show that he was trying to leverage a relationship with a foreign leader to dig up dirt on his opponent, Joe Biden. A lot of Democrats have noted that Trump asked for “a favor” and then brought up investigating Biden, which is the smoking gun in the transcript. Trump supporters have responded by noting that “the favor” was actually asking about CrowdStrike and doing more digging into 2016 election interference. My read: they’re both right. Immediately after asking for a favor, Trump mentions the election interference, not Biden. But he does then say, “the other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” moving into an ask about conducting an investigation. To me, that reads pretty clearly like the second part of a “favor,” all moments after talking about the aid the U.S. provides Ukraine. Also: this transcript is clearly a shortened version of the conversation and was supposed to help Trump, not hurt him. I can’t help but wonder what we aren’t seeing if this was supposed to exonerate the president. On top of all this, the whistleblower’s allegations are also pretty remarkable (again: proceed with caution). That the White House would try to move the call transcripts from the server they’re usually on to a classified server is damning. That Giuliani — Trump’s personal lawyer who is not employed by the government — was circumventing U.S. diplomats and engaging foreign leaders about investigating Biden, is pretty much insane. Republicans can claim the whistleblower complaint didn’t match the call, but I’m not buying that. Neither is Maguire, who testified under oath before Congress this morning that the complaint generally aligns with the transcript of the president’s call to Zelensky. Some of this stuff — like the transcript being moved to the server — is still just allegations. But the timeline laid out in the complaint around Giuliani is backed by lots of public reporting and Giuliani’s own public comments. Even worse, yesterday, the Trump team made a grave mistake by accidentally emailing their “talking points” on the transcript to Democrats in Congress. Immediately following the error, a White House officially desperately tried to “recall” the email with a follow-up, but the talking points were already blasted out. Now, as Republicans and Trump-friendly media try to back up Trump, their defenses sound an awful lot like those scripted talking points that were sent out, giving them a lot less credibility. Even Fox News host Juan Williams called out his fellow pundits for repeating them, which caused a brief meltdown on air last night. Point is: there is a lot of coordinated politicizing going on here, from both sides, but we are privileged to read the underlying info ourselves. When I do that, without the noise of the pundit class and the White House, I see a pretty damning phone call and report about a president flexing foreign diplomacy to try to damage a political opponent.
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: Would Trump benefit financially from war with the Middle East?
- Chris, Layton, UT
Tangle: Hey Chris — great to hear from Utah! Thanks for writing in.
Your question is one a lot of people are asking, especially after Trump announced late on Friday that he would make a small troop deployment to Saudi Arabia. I was surprised that the news Trump was sending troops to aid Saudi Arabia didn’t cause more of a raucous, given he ran on ending wars in the Middle East and certainly seems to draw support from both sides on that issue. But it’s easy for things to get lost in the noise these days.
The short answer to your question is “we don’t know.” And that’s apparently how Trump would prefer it. Unlike every president before him in the modern era, Trump refused to release his tax returns to the public before he became president. He’s also refused to put his assets in a blind trust, something that would require him to liquidate and give up control to independent trustees and not his children or relatives. Of course, Trump is a billionaire and entered office far wealthier and with far more complex and deep financial ties than any other president in history. In 2016, when Trump was first starting out in office, Forbes estimated he was worth $3.7 billion and had as much as $170 million in liquid investments, but what we know about that money is quite vague.
On one hand, you could make a case that Trump’s investments bear little weight when it comes to his political philosophies. When he was inaugurated, the president had millions of dollars of stock in Apple, Google, Ford Motors, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan, among others. And yet he’s railed against each company publicly and even called for boycotts of Apple products.
On the other hand, Trump owns shares in Big Pharma, in multinational oil companies like Shell and Exxon, and — as an avid news consumer might remember — he owned shares in the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline, a project Trump pushed through despite weeks of protests to stop it. These ties raise questions about Trump’s failed promise to punish Big Pharma companies and the motivations behind moves to protect the oil markets (of course, basically every president for the last 40 years has had an oversized interest in oil).
More to your point, it isn’t clear that Trump would personally profit from going to war in the Middle East, but that’s a pretty vague hypothetical. The Middle East is an extremely complex region both politically and economically, so the difference between war in Iraq and war in Iran, and how it might impact Trump’s personal profit, is huge. But if we’re thinking about the Middle East and how Trump may be profiting from it, the most obvious place to look is the place Trump just sent U.S. troops: Saudi Arabia.
The ties between Trump and Saudi Arabia run deep. He’s been doing business with Saudis for two decades and even sold the Plaza Hotel to a partnership organized by the Saudi Crown Prince in 1995. In a 2015 rally, Trump boasted that the Saudis “buy apartments from me” and “spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them?” Most reporting about his ties to Saudi Arabia reference Trump real estate and the fact members of the Saudi Crown Prince’s entourage have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at Trump hotels in the last couple of years. Or they point to the fact Trump owns a golf club in Dubai. Trump’s unwillingness to make financial disclosures has left us guessing how much money those properties bring in from top Saudi diplomats, but it’s not unreasonable to assume it’s in the millions.
More importantly, though, is the people orbiting Trump and their relationship to Saudi Arabia. Tom Barrack, a close Trump friend and a fellow billionaire who arranged Trump’s early relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (commonly known as MBS), has significant financial interests in Saudi Arabia. Though he has never been a formal member of the administration, Barrack helped set up Trump’s first foreign trip — which was to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Barrack was courting investments from the Persian Gulf for his private equity firm Colony NorthStar to the tune of $7 billion. 24 percent of that money came from either the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, according to The New York Times.
Barrack is said to be one of the few people Trump speaks to as a peer and apparently has quite the influence on POTUS. Another thing worth noting is that in May of 2017, rulers in the kingdom said they would invest $20 billion in a fund to help pay for American infrastructure, part of an initiative Trump has championed. “The $20 billion investment went to a fund set up by the money manager Blackstone, whose founder is close to Mr. Trump, his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner,” according to the Times.
Taken together, all this has raised questions about why four of Trump’s five vetoes as president were to protect Saudi Arabia arms deals. Or why he’s continued his overt praise for MBS even after he was credibly accused of orchestrating the murder of a Washington Post journalist. Or why he’s supported the Saudis position in the Yemen conflict even as millions of people die, starve and are in desperate need of aid. Or, now, why he’s sending troops to defend a Saudi oil field when he spent years campaigning on fewer troops overseas and he presumably knows Saudi Arabia is perfectly capable of defending itself.
I know you’re probably looking for a clear cut answer here. Perhaps if Trump goes to war with a specific country we can follow the money trail of the arms deals associated with that war that goes directly to a fund Trump is heavily invested in. Unfortunately, it just isn’t so black and white (yet). More likely, and in my opinion more worth watching, is the way the nuances of Trump foreign policy might impact his personal profit. In the case of Saudi Arabia, preventing a war might be more profitable for Trump than facilitating it. A cynical viewer might see his reluctance to deploy troops or retaliate to Iranian aggression as evidence of Trump’s desire to keep his investments in the Middle East stable rather than an intuition to avoid war. I don’t have the evidence to make that claim, but there are plenty of Trump financial ties in the Middle East that make my ears perk up. And they’re all worth considering whenever Trump makes a policy move in the region.
Yesterday, The New York Times published a story about how “swing voters” were turned off by impeachment and the proceedings could cost Democrats in 2020. But Media Matter’s Matt McDermott documented how the alleged “swing voters” actually consisted of several voters The New York Times has used for stories before, and each seemed to have very, very strong pro-Trump politics (one attended dozens of rallies, another voted for Trump and Republicans in the midterms, and another was previously described as the heart of Trump’s base and had a Robert E. Lee portrait in his living room).
A story that matters.
Income inequality grew to its highest levels in the last 50 years, according to Census Bureau figures. While income inequality is often most seen and discussed as it relates to cities and urban areas, last year some of the places with the largest growth of inequality were heartland states. Despite median household incomes rising to $62,000 last year, the highest ever, income was still distributed unevenly to the top. The Associated Press said the wealthiest may have been helped by the Republican-led tax cut effort last year. Latest data on inequality is relevant heading into 2020, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two leading Democratic candidates, have made it the centerpiece of their campaign even as the economy is in great shape. You can read more here.
Have a nice day.
The government of Costa Rica says 99 percent of its energy will come from renewable sources by 2019. That means the country will run on more than 98 percent clean energy for five straight years, an unprecedented streak for any nation. Though small, Costa Rica has set the bar for other nations. Its 1.5 million homes and 225,000 businesses get “67.5 percent of its energy from hydropower, 17 percent from wind, 13.5 percent from geothermal sources and 0.84 percent from biomass and solar panels. The remaining 1.16 percent corresponds to backup plants,” according to Tico Times. Next up: reforming the transportation sector, which is still reliant on fuels that emit carbon. You can read more here.
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