EVENT TRANSCRIPT: 2020: President Trump Confronts Iran and Impeachment
DATE: 1pm-2pm, 19th of February 2020
VENUE: Millbank Tower. 21-24 Millbank, Westminster, SW1P4RS
SPEAKER: John B Bellinger III
EVENT CHAIR: Dr Andrew Foxall, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre and Director of Research, Henry Jackson Society
Dr Andrew Foxall: Good afternoon everybody and welcome to the Henry Jackson Society. My name is Dr Andrew Foxall. As many of you know, I oversee our Russia and Eurasia Programme, and at the same time I’m Director of Research here. I’m delighted that we have with us today John B Bellinger III. John will be talking to a title of ‘2020: President Trump confronts Iran and Impeachment.’ John is a partner at Arnold & Porter in Washington D.C and co-head of the firm’s global law and policy practice. He’s also an adjunct Senior Fellow in International and National Security Law at the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to that, he is a former Legal Advisor to the Department of State and National Security Council in the George W Bush administration He worked very closely with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during those years. He also served as Council to Ambassador Taylor, the former U.S Ambassador to Ukraine in the impeachment proceedings. I realize we’ve started a couple of minutes late so I won’t say anymore by way of introduction. Instead, John, just to welcome you again, I in particular are very keen to hear what you are going to say about the impeachment proceedings. So, without any further ado, over to you.
John Bellinger III: Thanks Andrew. Thank you all very much for coming out on a rainy day and particularly for those of you who had accepted for Thursday and shifted to Wednesday. I thank you, that was totally my fault. I cannot be trusted with my own calendar because this was arranged months in advance and I said ‘Absolutely, Let’s do it on Thursday.’ Then, about four days ago, I realised what I really meant was Wednesday. Thank you all, I’m glad many of you all came out. So, just to get you cited a little about me and where I’m coming from right up front so you don’t have to wonder, and then I will get into the subjects at hand. I served most of my career in the US government, in both career and in political positions. I have served at the Justice Department, much in the news these days, at the CIA and on The Hill. I spent 4 years as the Legal Advisor for the National Security Council. I was in the situation room on 9/11 with Condoleezza Rice. I then moved over and ran her Senate confirmation and transitioned to the State Department, and was the General Counsel (we call it Legal Advisor) for the Department of State in the Second Term of the Bush Administration, when we were largely trying to fix up some of the things from the first term. And then, I have been out for the last ten years. I have chosen not to serve in this administration, which pays me not to be in government in a Republican administration. This is just simply too chaotic for me, and I feel I serve the country better from the outside than from the inside. A few of you may know that three and a half years I organised and drafted one of the two principle letters – the letter of the most Senior US Government officials; former Republican officials, who had served directly with former Presidents. We said in August 2016 that then candidate Trump lacked the character, values and experience to be President. I listed the reasons why we thought that and said that if elected he would be a danger to our national security and the most reckless President in history, and I said that back in the August of 2016. That in my view, and I think in the view of many of the people who signed on to that letter has turned out to be right. It has been worse than we expected in many respects. I’ll get into some of that in the Q&A. I’ll just simply say as you well know (I know there are many Americans in the audience but many of you are not), you know, it has made it difficult to staff this administration because about 98% of us who have served in previous Republican administrations, particularly the Bush administration but going back to the Reagan and Bush I administrations, have either chosen not to serve or because we served in previous Republican administrations, the Trump administration didn’t want us because we were inherently suspect. So, it’s made it very difficult to staff this administration and it does make it difficult. I discuss this regularly with my colleagues: there’s a draw to want to go in to serve at the State Department, to serve at the National Security Council, but there is a feeling that unless you are really supporting this President’s agenda (which very few of us are), then one serves better from the outside than from the inside. Anyway, I’m happy to get into some of that in Q&A. As Andrew said, I wanted to talk about two of the defining features of the first six weeks of 2020 for this administration. Of course, there continue to be defining features every day. We are right in the middle of a squabble between President Trump and his Attorney General Bill Barr, who is someone I know quite well. That’s quite unfortunate because the reputation of the Department of Justice is now being undermined. But I want to talk about two things: The Soleimani strike at the beginning of January and then obviously the impeachment.
Let me start with the Soleimani strike, and this of course is particularly interesting to me as the former Legal Advisor for both the National Security Council and the State Department, because I worked a lot on drone strikes and the legal basis for them when I was in the Bush Administration. And it raises both policy issues and legal issues, so let me say right up front: I think we are much better off, the world is better off, the United States is better off without Mr Soleimani. There is no question about that. He posed a past threat and a future threat. He had blood on his hands. It is better for the United States that he is gone. But, there are still a lot of questions about the legality of the strike and even the process of the strike. And what’s interesting here is that the administration’s legal positions have been constantly shifting and have been unclear. That troubles me a lot as a Lawyer, so let me take you through. Some of the details you know and some are just beginning to come out just in the last couple of days. So, most countries, the US is the same and the UK is the same. When we take an action abroad we determine it both under domestic law and international law. And in both cases, the Trump administration’s asserted legal base for the Soleimani strike has continued to shift.
So let’s take domestic law; did the President act lawfully under our Constitution? So, the first thing that happened was that the administration did not file a public war powers report. The War Powers resolution requires the President to file a report within 48 hours of any use of force abroad. These reports are very report, and often just say we did the following thing and here is the legal basis for them. In this case, the administration filed one, but it was secret. I think this is only the second time in history, and I personally was responsible for writing this in the Bush Administration. There are dozens of them that are written, but they filed a secret War Powers report. Now everybody knew they had done the strike, there’s no questions about that. I’m sure there was intelligence that they didn’t want to disclose, you can file a classified annex. But they did not file a public War Powers report that said what the legal basis was that the President was acting under. So that was very strange. Then, within the first couple of days, Administration officials began conflicting legal basis and contradicting each other. As you know, Secretary Pompeo immediately said that the United States had reacted in response to an imminent threat posed by Mr Soleimani. Then, the Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, walked that back and said that he actually hadn’t seen any imminent threat but that there were possible threats in the future. Administration officials then gave a series of classified briefings about the reasons for the strike and the legal basis for the strike that angered not only Democrats, but Conservative Republicans like Mike Lee from Utah, to the point that Mike Lee from Utah walked out of the briefing saying, ‘That is without a doubt the worst congressional briefing I have ever attended. They are treating us like children.’ The new National Security Advisor who I’m actually rather fond of (Robert O’Brien) in the midst of all of this then said that this was justified under the 2002 Authorisation to Use Military Force, the AUMF that our Congress passed to authorize the Iraq War, which authorised the use force against Saddam Hussein and to address the threat from Iraq. That was in 2002. So that left people scratching their heads about why the administration would be relying on an 18-year-old congressional authorization? So, for the next six weeks, as a matter of domestic law, the administration left this all very fuzzy until five days ago. On Friday, the administration filed a mandated report under our National Defence Authorization Act, explaining what the legal basis was for this strike. They said that the President under his Article 2 Constitutional authorities (everybody thought that was fine, the President has broad authority as chief executive and commander-in-chief) but also under the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force. And it said that the President has broad authority to use force in response to an attack, to prevent an imminent attack or in the national interest. But it didn’t say which one he was actually operating under, so it just simply said that he’s acted under the Constitution and this 2002 Authorization of Military Force. This is very strange and provocative. It’s a real stick in the eye to Congress, to tell them that this controversial action was actually authorised by Congress from something they had done eighteen years ago. So that had repercussions in Congress. And it’s really unclear to me as a Lawyer (I did this for a living) why the President would do this. He has broad constitutional authority, no one disputed that. This is clearly a legal strike under constitutional law, but why the administration felt the need to tell Congress that it was relying on an eighteen-year-old law passed for a different purpose seemed almost certain too (and has) riled up our Congress. I’ll come back to that.
Then we have the International Law issue. In contrast to domestic law, where I believe the President had clear authority under the Constitution, in international law I do not believe the President has made the case. As you know, under the UN Charter, a state may not use force in another country unless it is authorised by the Security Council in the response to a state, in response to attack or the threat of an imminent attack. So since the first two didn’t apply, it would only be lawful under International Law to prevent an imminent attack. Initially, it looked like that was what the Administration was saying. When Secretary Pompeo came out on that first day and said, ‘We were doing this to prevent an imminent attack.’ Well, you know, Mr Soleimani is not a good guy, maybe there was something imminent planned. But then the administration kept walking back the imminence. So if there was not an imminent threat, then it would not actually be lawful under international law. Similar to the War Powers Report, under the UN Charter, when a country uses force in self-defence, you’re required to report to it the Security Council. To its credit, the administration promptly filed what we call an Article 51 Report. Article 51 says that a countries inherent right to use self-defence continues. So they filed a report with the Security Council saying that they had used force in self-defence, but then they didn’t explain what the imminent threat was. And here, what is the interesting part, is that they said although a threat of further attacks existed, the action was justified by the series of attacks that preceded it. Instead of saying there was an imminent threat, they said they were doing this on the basis of previous actions, which is really questionable under international law. So with respect to International Law, the administration has not made the case. Now, I don’t think the President personally cares, and that might be why there hasn’t been a lot of focus on this. But the United States should care. I have a bias here. This was my job, as the Legal Advisor for the State Department. When the United States acts around the world, we want to do it with a lawful basis. When the administration is unable to do that, I think the United States suffers. It makes it very difficult for us to criticise other countries if they act unlawfully if we do so ourselves.
In addition to these legal infirmities, I think what troubled many people was that it wasn’t clear the administration thought through these actions. Again, I think we’re better off without Mr Soleimani, and maybe the administration thought this through all very carefully along with all of the consequences about what Iran might do. If so, that was not at all clear, and the administration has not gone out to assure the American people that this shot against a military leader inside Iraq was not going to have unintended consequences. The Iranians, as you know, were actually relatively restrained, essentially launching missiles into the sand at a US base. Still, though, Iran may retaliate at a time and place of its choosing against US interests around the world. I’ll end up this part with the reaction from Congress, and this is still playing out. In response to these legal and policy concerns, both Houses of Congress have now passed resolutions limiting the President’s power to use force against Iran. You may have seen this in the papers, but this is pretty significant. At the end of January, the House (controlled by the Democrats, so maybe a little less surprising) passed two resolutions. One of them repealed the 2002 AUMF, in other words saying ‘we just don’t buy this at all,’ to the extent that you are telling us Mr President that you relied on a law passed eighteen years ago for a different purpose, and we’re just not buying it. So we’re repealing it. Second, they passed a second resolution prohibiting the President from engaging in any further hostilities against Iran, except in response to an imminent threat. So those were passed by the House. More significant though, just last Thursday, the Republican controlled Senate voted 55 to 45 (with eight Republican’s joining the Democrats) a similar resolution to the second one in the House, prohibiting the President from using force against Iran except in response to an imminent threat. So we now have a majority of both Houses of Congress (including Republicans in the Senate) essentially saying, ‘we are concerned about your use of force against Iran Mr President, and we are going to restrict your war powers.’ Now, they’re different bills, so for them to become law they have to match up. I think they will do that, that’s certain. The President has said he will veto it, and I think that is actually likely to happen. But now you actually have Congress and the President disagreeing on War Powers on Iran as a result of the Soleimani strike.
Let me turn to impeachment. It’s a little hard for me to offer more insights than you already have, because I know the world was following this pretty closely! As Andrew said, I did represent Ambassador Bill Taylor in the impeachment proceedings. I also represented somebody else you may know, Ambassador Mike McKinley, who was the Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Pompeo. One of the great privileges for me when I was the Legal Advisor for the State Department was that I represented all of our employees and ambassadors around the world, so I knew many of these people. So when the impeachment proceedings came along, a number of them called me up to say ‘I need legal help.’ And it was a great privilege for me to represent both of them. Mike McKinley resigned in protest after Secretary of State Pompeo refused to support Ambassador Yovanovitch. He essentially just left on a Friday and said the Secretary is not sticking up for the State Department and I’m resigning. He did not have a public testimony for impeachment. He did have a private testimony though, which has now been made public, where the House quizzed him about his reasons for resigning. But of course, the big testimony for me, along with the other witnesses, was Ambassador Taylor. The President and his supporters have of course denounced Ambassador Taylor along with Fiona Hill, and Colonel Vindman, and Masha Yovanovitch as all ‘deep state anti-Trumpers’ who are trying to take him down. The President actually personally tweeted at me! I was giving a talk at Harvard a couple of months ago, when all of the audience who were looking at me suddenly started laughing at me, and I thought, what have I done? I haven’t said anything particularly funny, and all of these students started showing me their phones and said that the President has just tweeted at you. And I said, that cannot be true! But sure enough, the President said, ‘Never Trumper Republican lawyer John Bellinger representing never Trumper ambassador Bill Taylor!’ And then that was the screed with which he called us all human scum. So, my children then actually gave me a coffee cup at Christmas that says human scum on it! What I can tell you (and I’ve made my views clear) about Ambassador Taylor (and this was troubling to me because I did not want to have my representation be used against him), but Ambassador Taylor is completely non-partisan, had absolutely no agenda, is not part of any deep-state and was not anti-Trump. In fact, he only got dragged into it after the whistle-blower’s report reported what had gone on, and then Bill Taylor got pulled into it. For those of you who watched the testimony, he’s really an extraordinary individual, and I’m very proud to have had him over in Ukraine. Now, I think most of the Republican arguments were really absurd, but they ended up being pretty effective. As you know, it was a series of arguments in the alternative either that the President did absolutely nothing, he was legitimately concerned about corruption in Ukraine, that there was no quid-pro-pro, and if there actually was then that was absolutely acceptable because the President was withholding sec assistance until Ukraine properly made certain promises. That it wasn’t a crime, it was just a policy difference. That in order to be convicted there actually had to be a crime. That Ukraine got the aid in the end. That the President was treated very unfairly. That was one of the lines that has resonated. I will tell you, just with inside information, for those who didn’t watch this closely, one of the things used in the Republican Senate was that the House had the secret proceedings in a bunker in the house and the President and his Lawyers were not allowed to attend. Now this was all completely false. I was in the room, and we had all of the House members of the Intelligence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and I think the Judiciary Committee who could attend and ask questions. And you can see it on the transcript – Republicans asking very detailed questions along with their counsel. So the allegations that this was somehow a secret, ex-party prosecution was just simply false. I personally do think that the House rushed through this. I understand it from their perspective, and of course Nancy Pelosi didn’t really want to do this from the beginning, because it was going to be a big distraction and it might make things worse. I think both of those things did happen, and she was probably right. It was probably a distraction, it may well have made things worse and so they wanted to get through it pretty quickly. I still personally think it was done fairly, but they did still push it through fairly quickly through the House, and that gave the Republicans an opportunity to criticise them. Of course, it was very sad to see the Republicans in the Senate all fall into line, with only Mitt Romney voting against. What was almost even sadder than that was that vast majority in the Senate were really unwilling even to criticise the President’s behaviour. I think you really can argue lots of different ways about whether the President should have been convicted. Was it a high crime and misdemeanour? Was It appropriate to do this in the last year of an election? You know, you can differ about those things. I personally think that the offences were exactly what the Framers had in mind, and the argument that this is taking away the vote of Americans three years? This is exactly why you have impeachment. If the people have voted in a President, and the President then engages in a high crime and misdemeanour, then the Senate is in fact there to essentially reverse the people’s vote. But virtually no Republicans criticised the President’s behaviour at all, and it was really sad to see. I would’ve liked to have seen them say (and I could have lived with this more) that the President acted inappropriately, and this behaviour concerns us, but I’m not voting to convict. One thing that was interesting, and he may have been honest about it, was when Lamar Alexander voted not to hear more witnesses. I don’t think he was quoted on the record as saying this, but I think the press report said that he was concerned about violence in Tennessee. I actually do think that there could have been a risk of violence f the senate had in fact convicted and tried to remove the President. I’m not sure that the President would have actually taken that. And although our framers expected that to happen, I’m not sure the President would have taken that lying down. So it may well be that it would have been difficult to remove him.
Just a couple of last points, because there’s still some things going on. Of course, the famous John Bolton has not been heard from. I know John very well, he served as Under-Secretary of State and then Ambassador to the UN when I was Legal Advisor. And John has been out there, sort of waving the flag, saying ‘I have something to say!’ Now, I think for those who have read your newspapers in the last 48 hours very closely, John apparently was down at Duke last Friday I think. He was asked a lot of questions, and it was clear he is just chomping at the bit to talk, and he would get questions and say, ‘you need to read Chapter 14!’ I think he’s caught in a very difficult bind here, because on the one hand his publisher contractually has said you can’t let any of the juicy details out! The only things you can say are to get people more excited about the book. So he can’t say anything. On the other hand, as you know, the White House is saying that the draft has classified information in it and it’s stuck in pre-publication review. I personally suspect that it may be something worse than that, from something that John said during the Duke speech. I suspect that they’re not only clearing the book, but they may be actually threatening him with legal action, perhaps for sharing the book with his publisher before it was cleared. So they may have actually caught him in a vice here, and it’ll be interesting to see if John Bolton’s will come out, and will he tell these things between now and November. And then sadly, the repercussions that you’re all aware off. The President of course is gleeful, he’s emboldened. Both Vindman’s, Alex Vindman and his brother, were blocked off the premises at the White House last week. Gordon Sondland was recalled. There’s been a purge of the NSC Staff. The President has been addictively taking action against anybody who was involved. Bill Taylor was told to step down. His tenure was going to end anyway he was on a limited appointment. His tenure as charge d’affairs was going to end anyway, but he was told to step down a few days early, and he’s come back and is now retired again. And then of course, in just the last 48 hours, we have this controversy with the Justice Department. And even Bill Barr, who I know very well, I think has essentially had enough. He’s done something to defend the Department, but I think this is actually going to get worse. And for those of us who served in the Justice Department (as I did before I moved over to the State Department), it’s very sad to see the independence and integrity of the Justice Department now being taken down. And I think this is actually a line that Bill Barr (who is of course a former Attorney General) really doesn’t want to cross. He’s been willing to do a lot for this President, and certainly there were some things that he feels had previously been done wrong and that he wants to correct. But to actually see the Department of Justice attacked, its prosecutors resigning, things beginning to fall apart, his personal reputation is now being seriously jeopardises as is the Department.
I’ll now just end on two notes. One, and one thing I would like to see happen, is senior Cabinet officials who have served in this administration and really have seen up close and personable how recklessly the President can act. And that means John Bolton, HR McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, Dan Coats and General Kelly. Each of them has been saying a little bit, but not much. Rex Tillerson gave the single famous talk about nine months ago, saying essentially that the President was crazy. The President then shot back, saying ‘I couldn’t get rid of Rex Tillerson fast enough!’ General Kelly has been speaking more and more, as you may have seen in the last week or two. He’s been giving a series of speeches, and the President has then shot back at him. General Mattis has been quiet. But normally, senior officials would not go and dish, but this is I think a different time, where people who have served with this President owe a duty to the American people to go and talk about what they say. It was one thing for those of us who have served in previous administrations to say in August 2016, ‘this is what we’re concerned about on candidate Trump’s prior behaviour’ and predicting what would happen, where we turned out to be right. But if these senior officials who have served with the President were to come out and say this is what they saw, again, I don’t know if it would make a difference. But I think it’s important for them to do so.
I’ll just end to say that I really do worry that if President Trump wins a second term, about the impact on our countries national security, its foreign policy, the values you care about a lot here at the Henry Jackson Society, the American brand, its commitment to the rule of law, to human rights, to democracy. It’s being undermined. Finally, just end on point I started with be interesting to see if he can get people to serve in a second term. Maybe a number of young people will simply say look, I will no longer have a chance to serve in a Republican administration unless I go and serve now. Maybe a number of senior people who wouldn’t serve before will say they want to go in. But if there is a second term, it will be interesting to see how he staffs it. There’s a lot that I haven’t covered. Last time I was here at Henry Jackson I talked about a lot of other international law issues. The proceedings before the International Criminal Court. There are three proceedings before the International Court of Justice. There’s a lot of other things going on in the world. Andrew thought we would do a deep dive on Ukraine. I’m happy to talk a little about that, but he’s more expert than I! I’m happy to take questions on any of these subjects, so please.
Dr Andrew Foxall: There are quite a few hands going up. What I will do is take questions in sets of two. But first, what I’m going to do, is use the chairs prerogative and ask the first question. Whilst I’m doing so please do continue to put your hands up and indicate if you’d like to ask a question. My question John, if I may. You spoke earlier about the fuzziness of the decision-making with the Soleimani strike. To what extent do you think that fuzziness is reflective of a broader dysfunctionality in the administration and the decision-making processes within the administration?
John Bellinger III: It’s a great question. I think it is absolutely emblematic of it. This is an administration where at the highest levels (the President himself) there isn’t a commitment to the rule of law and to legal explanations. He spends a lot of time criticising law and lawyers. To go to the other extreme, President Obama was criticised for going too far to the other way, and turning absolutely everything into a legal issue. He was a constitutional law Professor. If you read some of the books about national security decision-making in the Obama administration, it became essentially decision-making by lawyer. The President got himself all wound up by decision-making in Syria and so forth. We’ve gone from too much focus on legality to virtually no focus on legality. When General Mattis was there, I think he was quite considered about it. When Rex Tillerson was there, he did not have experience in government. I think, having just run ExxonMobil, he was concerned about following the rules. Secretary Pompeo is a Harvard educated lawyer and I think he probably presses the President to a certain extent, but we just don’t see the administration giving explanations. You’ll recall the same thing happened with the two Syria strikes in April 2017 and 2018. Those were again, the same thing. As a policy matter, perhaps it was a good thing that the administration took out these chemical weapons sites. But no explanation was given as to why that was lawful. The President just said we did it. As the former Senior Lawyer for the US Government, when the US does things like this, I think we need to act in accordance with the rule of law. And if it’s something on the edge, like the bin Laden raid or the Syria strikes or the Soleimani strikes, then we owe it to the world to go out and explain what it is that we’re doing. And again, the Trump administration has not cared about doing those things.
My name’s Jonathon and I’ve been living here for eighteen years. I’m a consultant to the DOD and the National Intelligence Council. Could you give me the domestic legal argument against Chris Murphy secretly meeting with a number of democrats at the side-lines of the Munich Security Conference, a Foreign Minister of Iran and has been declared person non-grata by the administration. What are the legal issues of meetings by Senators who they shouldn’t be meeting with?
Audience Member: I’m a former Law Enforcement Intelligence Analyst for the Ex-Soviet States. I worked in Ukraine when Ambassador was Ambassador. My experience is that the European Union have made it very clear that a strong American involvement with Ukraine and that region is absolutely vital, because it’s not the European Union’s strong point. My question is how international and US domestic law is adjusting to a new type of warfare and conflict. You mentioned the administrations arguments were a series of actions (directed by Soleimani).
John Bellinger III: That’s a great question and it allows me to develop my point a bit more. So when I am critical of the Soleimani action, I’m not critical of it as policy but as a matter of international law. What I would like to see is that the US could have explained in more detail why under this set of circumstances the action were justified. Without turning this into a lecture on law, international law has moved along with new threats. When I was Legal Advisor, we had to deal with Al-Qaeda. The first reaction of many Europeans was you can’t use force against non-state actors. We know how to deal with terrorists, you just arrest them and lock them up. The law has had to move over twenty years to the point where now Britain is dropping its own drone strikes because there’s a recognition that in dealing with terrorist groups beyond your borders who are attacking you, international law is not well developed. So it’s taken some explaining. Similarly, Responsibility to Protect. Traditionally, we don’t go into other countries to protect other people, but as there’s been more genocide and other actions, international law has had to move. If I had been legal advisor, and my policy officials said this is something we want to do (which often happens), I would have said this does not clearly fall within the traditional elements of imminence. But we can make the case in a way that will help move international law move forward. But don’t just say nothing, that’s not going to persuade anybody. It’s a fair question. A lot of people would be critical and say we don’t buy the argument, but they’re going to be more persuaded if we can go and make a persuasive case. On the first question, I think you’re probably talking about the Logan Act. There is a criminal statute in the United States that says it’s a crime for any person in the United States to engage in private foreign policy contrary to the administration’s foreign policy. This comes up pretty regularly, when some former Senator or current Senator is accused of going off and doing something. Logan Act accusations are thrown around a lot, but I think there are only two prosecutions in history and I think the last one was in the 1850’s. It’s basically not a statute that’s used. President Trump accused John Kerry of violating the Logan Act for similarly meeting with some Iranians in Geneva. Was it Zarif? I wrote an Op-Ed on Zarif and said that it was a mistake for the administration to have designated and sanctioned Zarif and then sanctioned and denied his visa to the United States. We do this to some Iranians. There have been Iranians who were involved in the 1979 Embassy siege takeover who we have denied visas too, but Zarif does not actually pose a threat to the United States. We may not like what he says, but he is Iran’s designated Foreign Minister. We wouldn’t like it other countries were to say that we don’t like what Mike Pompeo says, he’s just a shill for the administration, which is what we said about Zarif. We said we’re sanctioning him because he’s a mouthpiece for the Iranian regime. Well, of course he’s a mouthpiece for the Iranian regime, that’s his job. I think it was a mistake to sanction him, even if we don’t like what he says to say. It’s a fair policy point which is what you said, about whether foreign policy ministers should be off having their own meetings. I think one can criticise them on a policy basis, but as far as a criminal one goes, I don’t think the Justice Department is looking at that one too closely.
Audience Member: I’m a financial advisor for Americans in London. Of course, being over here, we’re all very very worried. It seems obvious to me that there are loopholes in the Constitution from the Founding Fathers or from the oversight that have now been ignored? Are there new things that can be put in to place to make sure this never happens again?
Audience Member: I’m the Ambassador of Bosnia-Herzegovina to the United Kingdom. My question is do you find anything positive about the Trump administration’s foreign policy?
John Bellinger III: Oh, well, I think I’m going to need some time to think about that one. In this case, I will do the first question first, so I can think about the second question. So two things. One, personally, I do think that the case was made for conviction based on wat the Framers intended. I personally believe this is exactly what the Framers were concerned about, when they said that the President could be convicted of high crimes and misdemeanours. You all probably studied this. That it wasn’t defined in the Constitution, but it’s a term known taken from British law that high crimes and misdemeanours didn’t mean a specific criminal measure on the Statute, but essentially abuse of power. In my mind, this is exactly what the President has done. He has abused his power for private gain. So I think the case was made. As I said earlier, it’s a very difficult question for Republicans whether they should have voted to convict him. I do see how difficult a question that was. Even though I think this is exactly what the Framers had in mind, and that the case was made, I see how difficult it was to vote, so I really wish that for those that didn’t want to convict, they had actually acknowledged a bit more that the President acted inappropriately. They really have emboldened him, by suggesting that he did in fact act lawfully and did nothing wrong. I think that’s dangerous not only for the President but for the American people, to tell them that they see nothing wrong and let’s just move on. One why reason why the President has continued to gain support, among many Republicans who I know, is many do like his domestic agenda. They like the Judges he’s put on the benches. They like the deregulation. They like the fact that the economy is doing very well, and they’re willing to overlook all of what they call ‘noise’ or other things. On the international area, clearly more pressure had to be put on China. I’m not sure I necessarily I would have done exactly the way the President has done it, and get in to as big a trade war with China as he did. I think we did need to push NATO partners to pay more for their defence. Again, I’m not sure I would’ve done it the way he did. It has really bothered me though, the President’s criticism of our allies, and his apparent affection for almost every dictator in the world. This really gets to the point of the Jackson Society. For those of you who are Americans, or for those of you who are friends of the United States, the United States has always had this brand. Our brand is often tarnished, but the United States has stood for the rule of law, for human rights, for freedom of the press, and again, you can have a counter-story to every one of those stories. But at the end of the day, the United States has always stood for every one of those things. And here we have a President who is really attacking every one of those. Attacking freedom of the press, attacking the rule of law, attacking government, attacking democracy, attacking human rights, and that’s just hard for many of us who have served in government to see.
Audience Member: Do either of the Vindman brothers, especially the one who wasn’t directly involved, have any recourse in law? Or even somebody like that in military, is it absolutely the President’s prerogative to fire him at will? Obviously from a British point of view that seems very strange, from our employment law.
Audience Member: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. The impeachment proceedings brought to light, possible issues in quarters other than the Trump White House. I’ll take two examples – the FBI. Under the direction of Comey and McCabe, which issues three (I believe) FISA warnings to spy on the President and his campaign. Based on the Steel Dossier, which was paid for ultimately by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton Campaign, it included all kinds of charges which were picked up by an ex-MI5 spy hanging out in a bar in Moscow (I believe), including charges that the President paid prostitutes to urinate on him. Anyway. Fiona Hill herself (NSC) referred to this as a rabbit hole. And yet, at the FBI, they took it seriously. And now McCabe has come out and said well it was the underlinks. But hang on, if you’re going to authorise spying on the President, it better come from the top. The secondary is of course Joe Biden, who clearly used his influence with Ukraine to get his son on the board of the largest foreign currency earning company in the country. And we’ve all heard the stories that the salary is eighty-thousand a month or whatever. What is your view?
John Bellinger III: I believe that there is no recourse. I was the Legal Advisor for the National Security Council. I actually feel very paternally about the National Security Council, because it really be a very important and special place. Most of the members of the National Security Council staff are detailed from the Departments and Agencies and are supposed to be the best and the brightest that the agencies can offer for two-years at a time. They really are very very good people who work endlessly. But it really is up to the President. He can have his own people. Most Presidents are perfectly comfortable having the agencies decide who they want to send, and as long as the person is not actively working against the President then the National Security Advisor will accept the people who are sent, and there is no political witness test. But it is, at the end of the day, up to the President and the National Security Advisor to decide who they want. I think it will be difficult for the Vinman’s going on in their careers. They cannot say they had a legal right to serve on the President’s National Security Council staff. If the President had tried to fire them from the military, and he’s said that the military should be looking at them, you’ve seen a real pushback from the military in that regard. Let me take the second one first on Biden. I’ve seen no evidence, and I’ve not seen anyone credibly say Joe Biden had anything to do with his son. I haven’t seen that, and it didn’t actually come up credibly in the proceedings. Questions can be asked about why Hunter Biden was being paid a large amount of money to serve on this board, but I have not seen anything that suggests Joe Biden had anything to do with that. On the first question, I’ll say two things. What you said is correct. The FBI has admitted that these FISA applications were not up to their normal standards. Now, they were approved by three federal judges who felt that there was sufficient explanation. A FISA application allows for electronic surveillance for a foreign intelligence purpose, but it has to be presented to a federal judge, and the federal judge has to conclude that there’s probable pause that the person is acting as an agent for a foreign power. Three different federal judges felt that there was enough information. Now, you can say that the Federal Judges rubber-stamped this. But your point is a fair enough. Both the Inspector General of the Department of Justice and the FBI have said those warrants were not up to their standards and really ought to be looked at. I do hope that the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater, because the foreign intelligence surveillance process is in fact a very important one. It’s how we track down spies, terrorists and people who are acting contrary to our interests.
Audience Member: Do you think the failure to call Hunter Biden as a witness by the House of Representatives enabled the Republicans to portray it as a partisan issue?
John Bellinger III: Again, this was an impeachment proceeding focusing on the President’s conduct in office, and whether the President had in fact committed high crimes and misdemeanours. In my view, Hunter Biden had nothing to do with it. You can have a separate investigation into Hunter Biden, but legally, (I take your point politically) Hunter Biden was not a relevant witness to the impeachment of the President. Maybe it’s because I don’t buy that the President was just generally ‘concerned’ about corruption in Ukraine, and that’s why he held up the security assistance. I think the case was shown, and my client Bill Taylor showed this in an e-mail, that this was crazy, to hold up aid to Ukraine so as to help the President’s political fortunes. That was the perception. It’s a fair question as I said though, why was Hunter Biden being paid this amount of money? Did the particular company think they could get to his father? Those are fair questions, and politically, you’re right that it perhaps left people thinking, ‘why are we looking at the President and not Hunter Biden?’ Well, there’s an answer to that, and that’s because this was an impeachment investigation about the President. If you’re concerned about Hunter Biden, go and have another investigation, but that’s not an impeachment investigation. Anyway, thank you all for coming out, and I’m happy to chat with any of you after!