Why you should care
Because impeachment is rare and risky, and the outcome is never assured.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
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 at least one significant blind spot, as we have not yet seen the whistleblower’s complaint. As this is written, a transcript has been released of the president’s call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. It shows pretty clearly that Trump did ask Zelensky to investigate Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s possible involvement in a Ukrainian corruption case. Our Justice Department says it determined this was not a campaign violation and therefore not illegal. But as it pertains to an impeachment inquiry, the question of legality will be less important than judgments about whether it represents the ill-defined constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In other words, this will call for a political judgment. But the bottom line is that it’s very difficult to conclude anything other than that the president was pushing for dirt on the person likely to be his main campaign rival.
Let me say clearly that I believe Trump has already done enough to earn censure. Hopefully, before the end of the week, we will get the specific data on the whistleblower 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 Biden. The former vice president 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 to 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.
This article has been updated to reflect Wednesday’s release of the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky.