Whistleblower describes White House trying to cover up Ukraine phone call

Official says complaint based on conversations with ‘more than half a dozen U.S. officials’ who had direct knowledge

A whistleblower’s complaint says that after initial “small talk,” President Donald Trump used the rest of his time on his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “advance his personal interests.” (Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call composite/Getty Images)
A whistleblower’s complaint says that after initial “small talk,” President Donald Trump used the rest of his time on his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “advance his personal interests.” (Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call composite/Getty Images)
Posted September 26, 2019 at 9:14am

An intelligence community whistleblower raised alarms that President Donald Trump used his office to pressure a foreign government to influence the 2020 U.S. election and his staff orchestrated a cover-up to keep details of a phone call with Ukraine’s president off normal channels.

The whistleblower’s nine-page complaint, released by the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, describes White House officials intervening to “lock down” all records of  the president’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In a sign of aides’ potential concerns — concerns Trump tried to brush aside by describing the call as “beautiful” and “perfect” — the records were moved to a system used for classified materials even though they “did not contain anything remotely sensitive,” the complaint says.

The intelligence official wrote to a top government inspector general about being “deeply concerned” that the president’s conversation with Zelenskiy amounted to “a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, or violation of law or executive order.” The official used wording directly from the United States criminal code to raise concerns about the commander in chief’s conduct.

“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote in the official complaint, which is dated Aug. 12.

“This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the president’s main domestic political rivals. The president’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph W. Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General (William) Barr appears to be involved as well.”

That portion of the complaint aligns with a partial summary of the Trump-Zelenskiy call released Wednesday by the White House. House Democrats said that document only confirmed Speaker Nancy Pelosi was justified in announcing a formal impeachment probe and focusing it on Trump’s request that Zelenskiy “do us a favor” by investigating 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden for what Trump still asserts was misconduct while the former was vice president.

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In the complaint, the whistleblower says he or she does not have firsthand knowledge of the president’s conversation with the Ukrainian leader. But the account is based on conversations with “more than half a dozen U.S. officials” who had direct knowledge.

The individual told the inspector general those accounts seemed “credible,” largely because “in almost all cases, multiple officials recounted fact patterns that were consistent with one another.”

Trump’s actions “pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections,” the whistleblower wrote. The official added that after small talk with Zelenskiy, Trump “used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests.”

Soliciting such assistance for a personal political benefit would be a federal crime, House Democrats and some legal experts say. Republicans and White House officials, however, contend that Trump did nothing wrong and was justified in asking the incoming Ukrainian leader to look into possible corruption by Biden and his son.

The whistleblower describes multiple White House officials being “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s conduct on the call, adding that they described an almost-immediate internal debate about how to handle it.

“White House officials told me they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization and distribution to Cabinet-level officials,” according to the complaint.

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“In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced — as is customary — by the White House situation room,” the whistleblower wrote.

The alleged “lock down” effort, to the whistleblower, showed that Trump’s aides “understood the gravity”of his ask that a foreign leader investigate Biden, who at the time was his leading domestic political rival. Multiple public opinion polls conducted around that time gave Biden a double-digit lead in a hypothetical one-on-one race against Trump.

White House aides stored the transcript instead on another electronic system that housed particularly sensitive and highly classified materials, according to the complaint — breaking with their usual protocol.

“One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective,” the whistleblower wrote.

In short, the complaint describes multiple White House officials willingly hiding the Zelenskiy call transcript in a coordinated effort to protect the president. Their actions could pose legal problems for those involved — and add intensity to House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

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Trump on Wednesday repeatedly tried to discredit the unnamed intelligence official who wrote the complaint as the “so-called whistleblower.” Speaking at a press conference following a UN General Assembly session in New York, he also was critical of the complaint because, in his words, it is based on “supposedly second-hand information, which is sort of interesting.”

The president in recent days has denied any wrongdoing — though he admittedly did not want many questions about the matter during Wednesday’s press conference as he appeared distracted and lacked his usual bravado.

He has described the call with Zelenskiy with colorful and positive adjectives like “beautiful.”

“You take a look at that call, it was perfect,” he said Wednesday, before again denying seeking help from another government to influence the 2020 U.S. election. “I didn’t do it. There was no quid pro quo.”

House Democrats, including Pelosi, say their inquiry is not reliant on a clear quid pro quo such as the president withholding or threatening to withhold aid to Ukraine to get dirt on Biden. The Constitution says only that a president can be impeached by the House for a high crime or misdemeanor, after which the Senate would be the jury in a trial over whether the president should be removed.

In another portion of the same call, Trump repeatedly told Zelenskiy about all the aid Washington had given his country — and noted that he felt U.S.-Ukrainian relations were not “reciprocal.”