A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty

Did intel officials refer Trump to DOJ for possible criminal probe?

There’s no longer any doubt that Donald Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking his foreign counterpart’s assistance in a political scheme. The memo distributed by the White House this morning helped bring the scandal into sharp focus.

What we didn’t know, however, is how some officials from the U.S. intelligence community reacted to the Republican’s rhetoric. The Washington Post reported this morning:

Those statements and others in a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were so concerning that the intelligence community inspector general thought them a possible violation of campaign finance law. In late August, intelligence officials referred the matter to the Justice Department as a possible crime, but prosecutors concluded last week that the conduct was not criminal, according to senior Justice Department officials.

The New York Times had a related report, adding that the director of National Intelligence and the inspector general for the intelligence community each referred a complaint from a whistleblower to the Justice Department “for a possible criminal investigation into the president’s actions.”

If this reporting is correct, it’s a rather extraordinary revelation in its own right. We knew the Office of the Director of National Intelligence brought the Justice Department into the process, but we didn’t know it involved a possible criminal complaint.

NBC News reported this morning on how the process played out from there:

According to DOJ officials, the criminal division – including career employees – concluded that there was no campaign finance violation. A DOJ official said the criminal division concluded last week that what Trump was asking for did not amount to a “thing of value,” as the law requires.

In conducting its analysis, DOJ asked the White House for the notes of the president’s conversation – the so-called “transcript” – and the White House voluntarily turned it over.

I’ll leave it to legal experts to speak to whether the Justice Department’s call was the appropriate one. Given the fact that the department is led by Attorney General Bill Barr, the administration probably shouldn’t be too surprised if there’s some skepticism about whether a complaint against Trump was handled properly.

But either way, the fact that the matter was referred to the DOJ for possible criminal scrutiny is a striking new detail.