Whistleblower’s complaint says White House tried to ‘lock down’ Ukraine call records

(Anna Moneymaker | The New York Times) House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) after a closed-door intelligence briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. The intelligence officer who filed a whistleblower complaint about President Donald Trump’s interactions with the leader of Ukraine raised alarms not only about what the two men said in a phone call, but also about how the White House handled records of the conversation, according to two people briefed on the complaint.

Washington • Senior White House officials tried to “lock down” a record of President Donald Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine in an attempted cover-up of Trump’s efforts to compel an investigation of a Democratic rival, a whistleblower alleged in an explosive complaint released Thursday.

The whistleblower — a CIA officer who once worked at the White House — said in the complaint that White House officials moved a transcript of the July 25 call with the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, onto a secure, classified system in order to keep secret actions by Trump officials in his administration found “deeply disturbing.”

In the complaint, the officer added additional details to what a reconstructed transcript of the call revealed about the interaction between the two leaders, asserting that government officials, including some at the White House, believed Trump had abused his power for personal political gain by pressuring Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his younger son, Hunter Biden.

And, the whistleblower said diplomats were outraged by the activities of the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in trying to persuade Ukrainian officials to open an investigation into the Bidens.

The new revelations from the nine-page complaint, submitted to the inspector general of the intelligence community and released Thursday morning by the House Intelligence Committee, added to the political furor over the president’s attempts to influence Zelenskiy.

Trump lashed out angrily, denouncing the whistleblower and the people he cited in his complaint as treasonous spies and darkly hinting that the unidentified intelligence officer suffer the same punishment the United States “used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right?”

Democrats seized on the complaint as a road map to Trump’s eventual impeachment, saying they had decided its allegations would now be the primary focus of their effort to remove him from office. They described the whistleblower as a hero whose bravery exposed presidential misconduct and revealed a conspiracy to manipulate the 2020 elections involving the president, Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr.

“We are at a different level of lawlessness,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Some House Democrats said it is possible that lawmakers could have articles of impeachment drafted by the end of October.

By the whistleblower’s gripping account, the highest officials of the United States and Ukraine have been caught for months in a web of geopolitical intrigue and secrecy involving promises of foreign assistance, demands for political favors and evidence of election interference.

The complaint described shadowy diplomacy by Giuliani, and — in the aftermath of the president’s call with Zelenskiy on July 25 — a plot inside the White House to hide evidence, which was “not the first time” that the White House had stowed the transcript of a call on a more secure server because of the political content of the conversation rather than its national security implications.

The accusations leveled — that the president “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election” — engulfed two continents amid growing alarm in the U.S. diplomatic corps and at the Pentagon about the president’s willingness to use his foreign policy authority for his own personal gain.

The whistleblower’s complaint was made public just as the House Intelligence Committee gaveled open its first congressional hearing since Pelosi on Tuesday announced the beginning of the constitutional effort to force Trump from office.

Democratic lawmakers grilled Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, on why he had refused to deliver the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress for nearly a month, rejecting the recommendations of the intelligence community’s inspector general. Democrats also asked Maguire why he first consulted the White House and the Justice Department about the complaint before turning it over to Congress.

Maguire, a retired Navy vice admiral and former counterterrorism official, bristled at what he called attacks on his integrity. He defended the whistleblower, who he said “followed the law every step of the way.” But he declined to endorse Democratic suggestions that the president should be investigated or punished for his actions.

“My responsibility was to get you the whistleblower letter and get the other information released. I have done my duty,” Maguire said. Whether to investigate further “is on the shoulders of the legislative branch and this committee.”

As the revelations piled up, seemingly by the minute Thursday, Republicans in Congress largely stood by their embattled president as they have done for almost three years. Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the intelligence panel, accused Democrats of launching another “information warfare operation against the president,” just like they fanned the flames of unsubstantiated “Russia hoax.”

“They don’t want answers,” Nunes said. “They want a public spectacle.”

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, complained that the whistleblower “has no primary sources” while others suggested he had a political agenda.

Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, described it as “nothing more than a collection of thirdhand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings — all of which shows nothing improper.”

Grisham said the president had been open and transparent about the July 25 call. A day earlier, the White House released a reconstructed transcript. “That is because he has nothing to hide,” she said.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has been the front edge of an impeachment push for months, is now expected to temporarily suspend its investigation of obstruction of justice and abuse of power by Trump based on the findings of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference in 2016 and the president’s attempts to thwart it.

Pelosi did not offer a specific timeline for that work, which could slow as lawmakers leave Washington this weekend for a two-week recess.

Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, pledged to have his committee work through Congress’ recess. At the top of his agenda, he said, is interviewing the whistleblower and examining the roles of Giuliani and Barr.

“We want to know what role Rudy Giuliani had in all of this. We want to know what role Bill Barr had in any of this,” Schiff said. “We want to know what Ukraine understood was expected of them before they even had this July phone call with the president of the United States.”

CIA officials Thursday declined to answer questions about the whistleblower’s identity, and the lawyer who said he is representing the whistleblower declined to confirm the affiliation with the CIA. But the complaint suggested that the whistleblower is an analyst with expertise in European affairs and knowledge about Ukraine and its politics.

That expertise will likely add to lawmakers’ confidence about the merits of his complaint, and tamp down allegations that he might have misunderstood what he learned about Trump. He did not listen directly to the July call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

People familiar with the whistleblower’s complaint said Thursday that the White House and the Justice Department had learned about the allegations being made by the officer even as his complaint was moving through the reporting process.

The intelligence officer initially shared his complaints anonymously with the CIA’s top lawyer, who then shared the accusations of abuse of power with officials at the White House and the Department of Justice. Around the same time, the officer filed his whistleblower complaint.

In that document, the officer said that in addition to the White House officials who heard the call, the State Department counselor, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, was listening in on the call as well. Brechbuhl is a longtime friend and former business partner of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

A former White House official said it was extremely unusual for a State Department official to be on what was supposed to be a standard congratulatory call from the president to another world leader, and Brechbuhl’s participation was a sign of the intimate working relationship between Pompeo and Trump.

As details of the whistleblower complaint have trickled out over the past week, Pompeo has dodged questions on whether he, too, encouraged Ukrainians to honor Trump’s wish that they pursue investigations that could benefit him politically.

In a television interview Sunday, Pompeo said he supported Giuliani’s efforts with the Ukrainians. Speaking at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Pompeo said that to the best of his knowledge, “each of the actions that were taken by State Department officials was entirely appropriate.”