Whistleblower: White House tried to 'lock down' call details (with video)

President Donald Trump (left) and presidential candidate Joe Biden (right). AP images

White House officials sought to "lock down" records of a phone call in which President Donald Trump urged his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, according to a secret whistleblower complaint made public Thursday.

Posted: Sep 26, 2019 8:23 AM
Updated: Sep 26, 2019 11:27 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The whistleblower at the center of Congress' impeachment inquiry alleges that President Donald Trump abused the power of his office to "solicit interference from a foreign country" in next year's U.S. election. The White House then tried to "lock down" the information to cover it up, the official's complaint says.

The 9-page document released Thursday fleshes out the circumstances of a summertime phone call in which the president encouraged his Ukraine counterpart to help investigate a political rival, alleges a pivotal role for Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and suggests a concerted White House effort to suppress the exact transcript, including by relocating it to a separate computer system.

"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 the 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 complaint says.

With its precise detail and clear narrative, the previously secret document will likely accelerate the impeachment process and put more pressure on Trump to rebut its core contentions and on his fellow Republicans to defend him. The complaint provides a road map for Democrats to seek corroborating witnesses and evidence, which will complicate the president's efforts to characterize the findings as those of a lone partisan out to undermine him.

It is also certain to revive questions about the activities of Giuliani, who the complaint says alarmed government officials by circumventing "national security decision making processes." Giuliani, a Trump loyalist who represented the president in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, repeatedly communicated with advisers of Ukraine's president in the days after the phone call.

Trump insisted anew on Thursday that it is all political. After the complaint was released, he immediately tweeted, "The Democrats are trying to destroy the Republican Party and all that it stands for. Stick together, play their game and fight hard Republicans. Our country is at stake." The tweet was in all capital letters.

The whistleblower complaint centers in part on a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which Trump prodded Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The White House released a rough transcript of that call on Wednesday. In the aftermath of the call, according to the whistleblower, White House lawyers were concerned "they had witnessed the President abuse his office for personal gain."

The House intelligence committee released a redacted version of the whistleblower complaint Thursday ahead of testimony from Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. He acknowledged that the complaint alleged serious wrongdoing by the president but insisted that it was not his role to judge whether the allegations were credible or not.

Maguire said he was unfamiliar with any other whistleblower complaint in American history that "touched on such complicated and sensitive issues." He praised the whistleblower as having acted honorably, said he recognized the complaint as immediately sensitive and important and insisted the White House did not direct him to withhold it from Congress.

"I believe that everything in this matter here is totally unprecedented."

In the complaint, the anonymous whistleblower says that despite his or her not being present for Trump's Ukraine call, multiple White House officials shared consistent details about it.

Those officials told the whistleblower that "this was 'not the first time' under this administration that a presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive -- rather than national security sensitive -- information," the complaint said.

The whistleblower said that White House officials had tried to suppress the exact transcript of the call that was produced -- as is customary -- by the White House Situation Room, according to the complaint.

The officials told the whistleblower 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.

"This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call," the report said.

"If this was all so innocent," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, "why did so many officials in the White House, in the Justice Department and elsewhere make such large efforts to prevent it from being made public?"

The complaint also focuses on Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. It says that multiple U.S. officials reported that Giuliani traveled to Madrid one week after the call to meet with one of Zelenskiy's advisers, and that the meeting was characterized as a follow-up to the telephone conversation between the two leaders

House Republicans largely steered clear of discussing the substance of the call during the hearing, spending more energy criticizing Democrats than Trump.

One exception was Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, who said, "Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president — this is not OK. That conversation is not OK. It's disappointing to the American people."

Later in the day, Maguire was to go behind closed doors to speak to the Senate intelligence panel.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday endorsed an impeachment investigation in light of the Ukraine revelations. The president, she said, "betrayed his oath of office our national security and the integrity" of our elections.

The unidentified whistleblower submitted a complaint to Michael Atkinson, the U.S. government's intelligence inspector general, in August. Maguire then blocked release of the complaint to Congress, citing issues of presidential privilege and saying the complaint did not deal with an "urgent concern." Atkinson disagreed, but said his hands were tied.

The House and Senate intelligence committees have invited the whistleblower to testify, but it is uncertain whether the person will appear.

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