Washington • The White House severely restricted distribution of memos detailing President Donald Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, after embarrassing leaks of his conversations early in his tenure, a former White House official said.
The White House’s handling of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders is at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. A whistleblower alleges the White House tried to “lock down” Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s new president because officials were worried about Trump’s request for help investigating Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden. The anonymous whistleblower alleges the White House also tried to cover up the content of other calls by moving memos onto a highly classified computer system.
The former White House official acknowledged that other calls were concealed, while casting the decision as part of an effort to minimize leaks, not an attempt to hide improper discussions. The former official was not authorized to discuss the classification system publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House was beset by leaks of highly sensitive information in the early days of Trump's presidency. Trump was particularly enraged by leaks that disclosed tough conversations with the leader of Mexico on paying for a border wall and with Australia on abiding by an Obama administration deal on asylum-seekers.
After those disclosures, a White House adviser raised the possibility of lie detector tests for the small number of people in the West Wing and elsewhere with access to transcripts of Trump's phone calls.
In previous administrations, rough transcripts of presidential phone calls were kept private, but not housed on the highly classified computer system unless sensitive national security information was discussed. Summaries of the calls were distributed to relevant officials in the White House, the State Department and other agencies.
The Trump administration's process curtailed the number of people who had access. The question is now why.
The whistleblower's complaint paints a picture of a White House scrambling to conceal damaging information about the president, including the July call in which he pressed Ukraine's leader for help investigating Biden.
The White House released a rough transcript of the call this past week in which Trump repeatedly says Attorney General William Barr and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani could help with that effort. The call came days after Trump ordered a freeze to some military assistance for Ukraine.
The contents of the restricted calls with Putin and bin Salman are unknown. But Trump's relationship with both leaders has been controversial, given Russia's attack on the 2016 U.S. election on Trump's behalf and Saudi Arabia's human rights violations, including the murder of a Washington Post journalist.
The former official noted that even some of Trump's calls with U.S. allies were restricted due to the classified matters that arise during the discussions.
CNN first reported on the White House effort to conceal those calls.
Trump has repeatedly sought to discredit the whistleblower in recent days, accusing the anonymous CIA officer of having a political motivation. His advisers, however, have confirmed some details of the whistleblower's complaint, but offered different explanations for the White House's actions.
On Friday, the White House acknowledged that the Ukraine call was moved to a highly classified system at the direction of Trump’s National Security Council lawyers.