The past week was one of extraordinary revelations relating to foreign policy and corruption at the top of the government of the United States. The public got to see two documents, just months after they were created: first, the “TELCON” or transcript of a phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that took place on July 25; then, twenty-four hours later, a detailed letter from an unnamed whistleblower to congressional oversight committees accusing the president of self-dealing that sounds like treason — soliciting foreign interference in American elections as a condition of military aid.
The documents read like filings from a criminal trial. Here is one defense lawyer’s perspective.
The letter, which is referred to as the whistleblower’s complaint, resembles an affidavit in support of a search warrant or a criminal complaint in federal court. It is, in effect, sworn to and signed by a witness — a law enforcement officer in court, probably a CIA or foreign service officer here — but written by a lawyer. As the New York Times pointed out, the whistleblower complaint is unusually well written: right to the point, active verbs, clear sourcing. It incorporates law as necessary, but does not let legalese or George Orwell’s tricks-of-the-trade get in the way of clear communications. At the very outset of a federal criminal case, an experienced lawyer has a sense of how strong the government’s case is based on whether the criminal complaint reads like this (criminal complaints are used in federal court to establish probable cause for an arrest; to proceed to trial, the government must then obtain an indictment, which is voted on by a grand jury but does not spell out the basis for the probable cause). Many complaints are vague, verbose and fall back on the passive voice. Those linguistic weaknesses frequently cover holes in the evidence that become more apparent as the case develops.