Whistleblower claims Trump abused office, White House officials tried to cover it up
World / 26 September 2019, 8:01pm / By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON - The whistleblower complaint at the heart of the burgeoning controversy over President Donald Trump's call with the Ukrainian president claims not only that Trump misused his office for personal gain and endangered national security but that unidentified White House officials tried to hide that 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 complaint dated Aug. 12. The House Intelligence Committee released the seven-page document, which was directed to the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, on Thursday morning. It also released a two-page appendix that was once classified and portions of which remain redacted.
"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 P.] Barr appears to be involved as well," the whistleblower wrote.
In that phone call, Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Trump in 2020, and Biden's son Hunter. Trump offered to enlist Barr's help in that effort while dangling a possible visit to the White House, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for Barr has said that he did not know about the phone call until the whistleblower issue was raised, and that he had not spoken with Trump about assisting Ukraine with an investigation of Biden or his son.
Alarmed by the conversation between Trump and Zelensky, and related interactions between Giuliani and other Ukrainian officials, the unidentified intelligence official submitted the complaint to the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence agencies.
While the whistleblower's primary concern is the president's phone call with Zelensky, it is clear from the document that its author also was troubled by what appeared then to be a four-month pattern of election season misconduct involving the president, his lawyer and White House aides who sought to keep the whole thing quiet.
"I am also concerned that these 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 person wrote.
According to the complaint, the whistleblower was not alone in harboring concerns.
"The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call," the whistleblower wrote. "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."
About a dozen White House officials listened in on the call, which is common when heads of state speak directly. The complaint identifies State Department official T. Ulrich Brechbuhl as one of the officials who listened to the call. Since May, Brechbuhl has worked as a counselor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - a high level position reporting directly to the secretary.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The alarm was so great, the whistleblower alleged, that White House officials sought to limit access to the written record of the call.
"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 word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced - as is customary - by the White House Situation Room," the whistleblower alleged. "This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call."
The whistleblower also said that they were told by unidentified White House officials that they had been directed by White House lawyers "to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored." The whistleblower cryptically alleged that, according to other White House officials, this was "not the first time" a transcript was placed into a particular classified system "solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive - rather than national security sensitive - information."
The White House Counsel's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room in the Obama administration, said the computer system reserved for codeword-level intelligence information is used to retain the most sensitive compartmented intelligence matters, such as covert programs. It may also hold some diplomatically sensitive information - such as records of highly delicate negotiations and conversations, he said.
"It would never be used to protect or 'lock down' politically sensitive material or to protect the president or senior officials from embarrassment," said Pfeiffer, now director of the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University. "I'm appalled at this clear abuse of the President's power to manage and protect our most sensitive secrets. "
The complaint also describes a series of alleged actions by Giuliani that seemed designed to pressure the Ukraine government to go after Joe Biden.
The whistleblower learned from other U.S. officials that Giuliani's visit to Madrid on Aug. 2 to meet with a Zelensky aide was "a direct followup" to Trump's July 25 call to the Ukrainian president and request for an investigation of the Bidens, the complaint says. Giuliani also reached out to "a variety of other Zelenskyy advisers, including Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan and Acting Chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov," according to the complaint.
Giuliani's efforts complicated U.S. diplomats' dealings with Ukraine, according to the complaint. After the Aug. 2 meeting, the whistleblower alleged, two ambassadors had to advise Ukrainian leaders on "how to 'navigate' the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelensky." Those ambassadors also talked to Giuliani to "contain the damage" to national security, the whistleblower wrote.
The whistleblower's account is based on months of conversations with colleagues and concedes that, for most of the events described, the whistleblower was not a direct witness. The whistleblower wrote that the information was gathered "in the course of official interagency business. It is routine for U.S. officials with responsibility for a particular regional or functional portfolio to share such information with one another to inform policymaking and analysis."
Though the whistleblower did not have direct knowledge of much of what was described in the complaint, the account lines up remarkably well with public reporting and the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky phone call - noting that Trump had pressed for both an investigation into Biden and help locating computer the server used by the Democratic National Committee that were hacked by Russia ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. The president seemed to believe those servers were in Ukraine, according to the White House memo detailing the phone call.
The whistleblower complaint became the subject of a high stakes back-and-forth among government agencies about how it should be handled. While the inspector general sought to alert Congress to the concern, lawyers at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel concluded it should not be shared with Congress. The Justice Department decided it was not a proper whistleblower complaint, because it involved the conduct of the president, who is not an employee of the intelligence agencies.
Instead, the complaint was relayed to the Justice Department's Criminal Division in late August as a possible violation of campaign finance laws. After reviewing the matter for several weeks, Justice Department officials concluded the law had not been broken and closed the matter without ever opening a formal investigation.
In addition to raising a question about campaign finance laws, the whistleblower suggested that Trump and Giuliani might have engaged in a corrupt, quid pro quo with Zelensky. The whistleblower alleged, for example, that Ukrainian leaders were led to believe that Zelensky would only get a meeting or phone call with Trump if they would "play ball" on the investigations sought by Giuliani.
The whistleblower also alleged that in May, Trump instructed Vice President Pence to cancel planned travel to Ukraine for Zelensky's inauguration - sending Energy Secretary Rick Perry in his place - and it was "made clear" to U.S. officials that Trump did not want to meet with Zelensky until how he saw how Zelensky "chose to act" in office.
A spokesperson for Pence had no immediate comment.