By Chris Megerian, Molly O’Toole and Alexa Díaz
WASHINGTON — The whistleblower whose allegations of improper conduct by President Donald Trump toward Ukraine kicked off the House’s impeachment effort feared that the White House was trying to “lock down” records of the president’s actions to shield them from scrutiny.
In the days after Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, White House officials took unusual steps to secure the transcript of the call, the whistleblower said in the written complaint, a redacted version of which was released Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee. In the call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to do him a “favor” and help investigate his political opponents, especially former Vice President Joe Biden.
White House officials said the effort to keep the Ukraine call under wraps was “not the first time” extra steps had been taken “for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information,” the whistleblower wrote.
“White House officials told me that they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored,” the complaint said. “The transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”
According to the whistleblower, one official described this as “an abuse” because the call “did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.”
That was one piece of a wide-ranging complaint that expressed fears Trump was hijacking U.S. foreign policy for personal gain.
The redacted version of the complaint was released shortly before the House Intelligence Committee was scheduled to begin a public hearing with Joseph Maguire, the director of national intelligence.
Trump, who is in New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, did not immediately comment on the release of the complaint. But in a closed-door reception for members of the U.S. mission to the U.N., he lashed out at Biden and the media.
The president referred to Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” said he was “dumb as a rock” and denounced “press scum” within a minute of starting his remarks, according to a person in the room who relayed the comments on condition of anonymity.
Trump also expressed confidence about his chances in 2020 and beyond: “We’re looking good for another four years and then if we want to, another four and another four,” he said, drawing laughter from some of those in the room.
Although the whistleblower complaint is centered on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy, it includes broader concerns about Trump’s actions and his allies.
The whistleblower did not personally witness or listen to Trump’s call with Zelenskiy — a point some Republicans seized on Wednesday to characterize the complaint as “hearsay” — but the complaint’s description of Trump’s conversation closely mirrored the account of the call released by the White House on Wednesday.
“The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call,” the complaint said. “They told me there was already a ‘discussion ongoing’ with White House lawyers about how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials’ retelling, that they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain.”
The whistleblower said there was no explanation given to national security officials for why Trump was delaying critical military aid for Ukraine at the same time he was pushing Zelenskiy to help investigate Biden.
“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 complaint.
The complaint provides a more wide-angle view of the scandal than the memorandum of Trump’s call that the White House released. It discussed attempts by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to network with Ukrainian officials.
“I heard from multiple U.S. officials that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decision making processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the president,” the whistleblower wrote.
Kyiv, formerly known as Kiev, is the capital of Ukraine.
House Democrats and some Republicans who read the document on Wednesday called it “deeply disturbing.”
“Yesterday, we were presented with the most graphic evidence yet that the president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office. Betrayed his oath to defend our national security. And betrayed his oath to defend our Constitution,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said in his opening statement at Thursday’s hearing.
In his call with Zelenskiy, Trump “sacrificed our national security and the Constitution for his personal political benefit,” Schiff said.
Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a Republican member of the committee and former CIA official, said in a statement on Twitter that “there is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning. We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter, and the first step is to talk to the whistleblower.”
The whistleblower has agreed to testify provided that a lawyer can be present. White House officials have not made clear whether they would attempt to place any limits on the testimony.
The whistleblower’s identity has not been made public.
The whistleblower’s complaint went initially to the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who determined it was an “urgent concern,” which by law required notifying Congress.
In justifying his assessment, Atkinson used Trump’s executive order on foreign election interference. In that order, Trump wrote that foreign interference constituted “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Atkinson found the complainant to be credible, given the whistleblower’s “official and authorized access” and “subject matter expertise” as well as other information the inspector general gathered during a preliminary review.
Aktinson noted that the whistleblower had “some arguable political bias … in favor of a rival political candidate,” but added that it didn’t change his assessment that the person was credible.
The inspector general, who was appointed by Trump, also said he had sent requests to agencies in the intelligence community for access to and “the preservation of any and all records related to the president’s telephone call” and related efforts to allegedly solicit Ukrainian help in the U.S. election.
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