US obsession with Iran likely to overshadow murky tale of Donald Trump’s ‘promise’ to unknown foreign leader

It can only happen in the US of A.

It has now been confirmed by The Washington Post that President Donald Trump is at the centre of a formal whistleblower complaint from a source no less than the American intelligence community. The complaint refers to a ‘promise’ he made to a foreign leader that so infuriated the intelligence official that he went out and put up a formal complaint on 12 August. Intelligence ire seems to be aimed at the fact that this promise may have involved the sharing of potentially sensitive information, by a president seen as somewhat cavalier in such matters. It is unclear whether this person was actually present or read an account of the phone conversation.

As the president of the most powerful country on this divided earth, White House telephone calls will obviously have a bunch of officials listening in; but this president — being of a somewhat different mien — also uses his iPhone to call anyone he considers a ‘friend’; that is presumably is also listened in to by another bunch of people. Only some of those calls come down the line as official ‘readouts’, after due vetting by the West Wing. So overall, it isn’t a true transcript that finally gets out.

Whatever the outcome of this latest attack on the president, you have to admire the US system. One can hardly think of any scenario where an Indian intelligence official, or indeed any official, would have not just the courage, but also the systemic support for a complaint regarding the Head of State. In the US, there is a whole bureaucratic procedure for just such actions that centres around the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998, that added this category of sleuths to the general legislation protecting a whistleblower.

 US obsession with Iran likely to overshadow murky tale of Donald Trumps promise to unknown foreign leader

File image of US President Donald Trump. AP

That procedure led to the complaint reaching the Intelligence Community Inspector Generals office, who according to the The Washington Post, determined that the complaint was troubling enough to be considered a matter of “urgent concern”. That doesn’t mean that the IG is sitting with his head in his hands. It is a term that signifies a specific legal threshold that requires notification to Congressional oversight committees. That finding then went to the Direction of National Intelligence’s office, who was to send it onwards within seven days. That he didn’t do so on the grounds that it did not reference a person within the IC is a different matter altogether and therein lies controversy.

Now comes the interesting part. According to CNN, the leaders to whom the president spoke in the five weeks leading up to 12 August included Russian president Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and the Emir of Qatar. It’s unlikely that the last two would have had anything said to them that would have the intel community all hot and bothered. The other three are in a different category. And for India, it’s clear who matters.

In Delhi, a different bunch of people will be sitting with their heads in their hands, wondering what was ‘promised’ to an unstable leader who has been threatening or at the very least predicting nuclear war in an oped in The New York Times just two weeks later. Others will be concentrating on the North Koreans with whom talks are likely to be held at the end of the month at a time when Pyongyang is likely to be very ‘maximalist’ in its demands. With the Afghan deal down the drain, Trump needs a victory here far more than he did in the last round. As for Russia, people on the Hill are groaning about it all the time anyway, so that’s nothing new. More leaks and rumours are likely, as the intelligence community gets together to muddy the waters.

As the scandal echoes across the excitable Washington media, the White House may just have been saved by a country that has been in its crosshairs over the past few decades, and which led to the spawning of the term ‘evil empire’. On 14 September, Iran appears to have had the temerity to attack Saudi oil fields, using of all things, an explosive drone. As Saudi oil production dipped, nobody paid much attention to the fact that the Houthis, the group in Yemen allegedly backed by Iran, claimed the attack.

Luckily or coincidentally, John Bolton had already resigned from his post of National Security Advisor four days prior. But the president seemed to be following his line when he warned on 15 September, that the US was ‘locked and loaded’ and just awaiting verification of the strike. The very next day that comment was being explained away by an obscure White House official as a reference to US freedom from ‘energy dependence’ — an explanation that left most gaping. A few days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was warning that the attack constituted an ‘act of war’.

He clearly blamed Tehran, but his ‘warning’ seemed to refer to united action at the UNGA rather than any actual letting loose of the dogs of war. As of the time of writing, a White House press conference was seeing references to a possible meeting with the Iranians at the UNGA.  Meanwhile, to add to the noise levels, the Saudis were shouting themselves hoarse, even while everyone knows that Riyadh, despite buying billions of dollars of weaponry from the US, is no match at all for a battle-hardened Iran. Media sound and fury is also being built up by Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham, who are calling for action, all of which seems to add up to a show of imminent strength.

Will all this drive out the whistleblower story? Probably not, since the Washington media is likely to hang on to it like a dog with a bone. But this is a president who knows his audience. Far better a clenched fist in Tehran’s face, than the babble about a leak to an unknown country, referencing unknown information, for unknown reasons. Even the US media, which has shown its worst side in recent months, is unlikely to be able to persist with a story based on something nobody seems to know very much about. Tehran, meanwhile, can relax.

The Washington Post, that broke the story, is now reporting that according to two unnamed sources familiar with the matter, the ‘promise’ in question relates to Ukraine. This adds another name to the list of ‘likelys’.