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White House tried to 'lock down' Ukraine call records, whistleblower says

White House tried to 'lock down' Ukraine call records, whistleblower says

The whistle-blower’s complaint accused Trump of trying to compel Ukraine’s leader to help investigate a 2020 rival
White House tried to 'lock down' Ukraine call records, whistleblower says
President Trump spoke to reporters at Andrews Air Force Base on Thursday.
Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — After hearing President Donald Trump tried to persuade Ukraine to investigate a 2020 campaign rival, senior officials at the White House scrambled to “lock down” records of the call, a whistleblower alleged in an explosive complaint released Thursday.

In an attempt to “lock down” all records of the call, in particular its “official word-for-word transcript,” White House lawyers told officials to move the transcript into a separate system reserved for classified information that is especially sensitive, actions that the whistleblower suggested showed that those involved “understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call,” according to the complaint.

These and other details surrounding the call in which Trump pressured President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, were so “deeply disturbing” to senior White House officials that an unnamed intelligence official felt compelled to file a formal whistleblower complaint.

“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,” wrote the whistleblower, who did not personally witness the actions but had heard accounts from multiple American officials. “The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort.” The complaint also added that Attorney General William Barr “appears to be involved as well.” The account did not include details about any role Barr had.

The complaint, grippingly written to detail a pattern of behavior by Trump and his administration, was particularly damning given Trump’s long record of dismissing the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit him. House Democrats took steps to impeach Trump earlier this week, before the contents of the call and complaint were disclosed.

The White House on Thursday dismissed the whistleblower’s allegations. 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.

Trump himself also dismissed the allegations that he acted improperly.

“It’s a disgrace to our country. It’s another witch hunt, here we go again,” Trump told reporters after he returned to Washington. “My call was perfect.”

Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and a group of senior lawmakers from both parties, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, were permitted to review the classified complaint late Wednesday, just hours after the White House released a reconstructed transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

The unclassified version of the complaint was released ahead of a House Intelligence Committee hearing where the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, testified Thursday morning, saying, “I believe everything here in this matter is totally unprecedented.”

House Democrats have said that Trump violated his oath of office when he pressured a foreign leader to investigate one of his political rivals. The White House initially refused to provide Congress with the complaint or reveal what was said on the call. After Democrats took the first steps to impeach Trump, the administration disclosed details of the call and shared the classified complaint with lawmakers.

“There is nothing the president says here that is in America’s interest,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said at the start of Thursday’s hearing. “It is instead the most consequential form of tragedy, for it forces us to confront the remedy the founders provided for such a flagrant abuse of office, impeachment.”

The United States is a critical partner for Ukraine, which has faced years of Russian aggression that in 2014 culminated in the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, an action that was condemned internationally. Having a good relationship with Trump and his administration was a top objective for Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s new president who campaigned on rooting out corruption in the country. And U.S. funding is key to Ukraine’s success.

After a congratulatory call from Trump to Zelenskiy in the spring, multiple officials said a subsequent meeting or phone call between the two would depend on whether the Ukrainian president was willing to “play ball” on investigating Biden, his younger son, Hunter Biden, and other matters, according to the complaint. Biden is a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the days leading up to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, the president blocked a $391 million military aid package to Ukraine — a decision that caught officials from Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council by surprise.

During the phone call, Zelenskiy thanked Trump for the U.S. support. And Trump asked Zelenskiy to pursue investigations into Biden and the origins of the U.S. inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Trump was referring to two unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that Giuliani had been pushing.

“Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid,” the whistleblower wrote.

In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that the unusual handling of the call by White House officials was deliberate. And it was not the first time one of the president’s transcripts had been placed into the secret system “solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”

“They told me that 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 wrote.

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