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Intelligence Community's Perspective On Trump Whistleblower Complaint

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump has followed this pattern before - accused of some questionable behavior, he says the story is fake or unfair, but later admits he did it and says he was totally justified in doing it.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's what the president now says about allegations his administration tried to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent. President Trump says he did discuss a news story involving the son of presidential rival Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: He discussed that case with the president of Ukraine. President Trump has not released the transcript of the phone call but insists that whatever he said was perfect. An intelligence community whistleblower apparently called attention to all this, so John McLaughlin is on the line. He served as deputy director and acting director of the CIA under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Good morning.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How extraordinary is it that someone in the intelligence community would call this out?

MCLAUGHLIN: It's pretty extraordinary, Steve. There are complaints like this occasionally, but seldom one that involves the president. So it's almost unprecedented.

INSKEEP: And is it normal that people in the intelligence community would have access to presidential phone calls?

MCLAUGHLIN: Only if they were working in the White House and saw a transcript of a phone call that happened to go around. It's not something the CIA does routinely. The CIA does not listen in on presidential phone calls.

INSKEEP: And that would be - just to underline this, that would be thoroughly illegal - am I correct? - for the CIA, in some unauthorized as opposed to authorized way, to try to tap into a presidential phone call?

MCLAUGHLIN: That's correct.

INSKEEP: So what do you make of the president's admission that something like this really happened, even if we don't know the exact wording of what was said?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it's hard to know, Steve, because he doesn't really characterize the phone call. It's one thing to simply mention Vice President Biden in a phone call; it's another thing to actually pressure the foreign government to carry out an investigation that could, in the end, assist the president's campaign. We don't know quite all of that yet. So what I make of it is, the president has tiptoed up to an admission of wrongdoing here but hasn't quite nailed it for us yet.

INSKEEP: I guess we should underline - he did not admit to the other part of this, the other alleged part of this.

MCLAUGHLIN: That's right.

INSKEEP: We do know that the United States withheld military aid from Ukraine for some time. But then the next question is, would that somehow be connected to the demand for information, which would make it a kind of global extortion?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. He doesn't say that explicitly, and to my knowledge, the only way we connect that is by looking at the timeline and, to use the hackneyed phrase, connecting the dots and assuming that there was some connection here.

INSKEEP: Is this...

MCLAUGHLIN: Seems like a reasonable connection.

INSKEEP: It seems reasonable to you, you just said. Is this in any way less nefarious because the president, whatever he may have been doing in private, seems also to have been doing it in public? His lawyer Rudy Giuliani was running around Ukraine demanding information about Joe Biden and his son.

MCLAUGHLIN: Not to me. I think what we see as a pattern with the president is he does things that we, often - many of us find objectionable. He does them in plain sight. And then if he gets away with it, that's fine with him.

INSKEEP: Does this sound like an impeachable offense to you?

MCLAUGHLIN: It sounds like one of the things that could be an ingredient in an impeachment case if we learn more about it. It certainly has those ingredients, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. McLaughlin, thank you so much.

MCLAUGHLIN: You bet.

INSKEEP: John McLaughlin was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.