WASHINGTON — After hearing President 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, in particular the official complete transcript, a whistle-blower alleged in an explosive complaint released Thursday.
In an attempt to “lock down” all records of the call, White House lawyers told officials to move an electronic transcript of the call into a separate system reserved for classified information that is especially sensitive, the complaint said. During the call, Mr. Trump pressured President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
These and other details surrounding the call were “deeply disturbing” to senior White House officials, according to the complaint. A day earlier, the White House released a reconstructed transcript of the July 25 call.
The whistle-blower, an unnamed intelligence official, did not personally witness the actions, but heard accounts from multiple American officials.
“This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call,” the complaint said.
The complaint, grippingly written to detail a pattern of behavior by Mr. Trump and his administration, was particularly damning given Mr. 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 Mr. Trump before the contents of the call and complaint were disclosed.
The White House on Thursday dismissed the whistle-blower’s allegations, with Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, describing it as “nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings — all of which shows nothing improper.”
Ms. Grisham said the president had been open and transparent about the call. “That is because he has nothing to hide,” she said.
Mr. Trump himself also dismissed the allegations that he acted improperly.
In the complaint, the whistle-blower wrote that president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was involved in the pressure campaign as well as Attorney General William P. Barr, though details of his role were not clear.
The whistle-blower also wrote that the unusual handling of the call was deliberate.
“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 whistle-blower wrote.
White House officials had told the whistle-blower that this was “not the first time” that a presidential transcript had been placed into the secret system “solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”
Days before Mr. Trump spoke with Mr. Zelensky, the president blocked a $391 million military aid package to Ukraine — a decision that officials from Office of Management and Budget or the National Security Council did not know about or understand.
Multiple officials said a subsequent meeting or phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky would depend on whether the Ukrainian president was willing to “play ball” on investigating Mr. Biden, his younger son, Hunter Biden, and other matters, according to the complaint. Mr. Biden is a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 re-election bid,” the complaint said.
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, which was condemned internationally.
Sept. 26, 2019
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and a group of senior lawmakers from both parties, including Senator 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 Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky.
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.
Hours after the release of the transcript Wednesday, Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Speaking together to reporters, Mr. Zelensky joked that a date had yet to be set for the two men to meet in Washington.
House Democrats have said that Mr. 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 to reveal what was said on the call. After Democrats took the first steps to impeach Mr. 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,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said at the start of the hearing on Thursday. “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.”
During the hearing, Mr. Maguire said, “I believe everything here in this matter is totally unprecedented.”
A large part of the whistle blower’s complaint focuses on the activities of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, and his contacts with Ukrainian officials. In citing mostly public news reports, the whistle-blower said that Mr. Giuliani was pressing Ukrainian officials to investigate Mr. Biden, and his family — an allegation Mr. Giuliani has both denied and enthusiastically defended.
Mr. Giuliani has led the effort to push the Ukrainians to pursue an investigation into the Bidens and met with some Mr. Zelensky’s representatives over the summer.
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Fandos, Maggie Haberman and Michael D. Shear.
Sept. 26, 2019
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