In the days after Donald Trump exhorted his Ukrainian counterpart to help the U.S. President tarnish a top political rival, the White House scrambled to “lock down” records of the pair’s telephone conversation by hiding them in a special national-security vault alongside the country’s top secrets, according to a whistle-blower complaint at the centre of the scandal.
Meanwhile, the document says, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer reached out to high-ranking Ukrainian officials in a bid to further the President’s plan to have Kiev meddle in next year’s U.S. election.
The release of the allegations Thursday, in a nine-page letter by a U.S. intelligence official, prompted Mr. Trump to rage behind closed doors that whoever spilled the beans on his plans was “almost a spy” and deserved to be punished for treason.
The letter’s revelations suggest Mr. Trump’s attempt to have Ukraine investigate Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, went beyond his July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And they make clear Mr. Trump’s administration knew his efforts were alarming, even as the U.S. President has insisted he did nothing wrong.
“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 complaint reads.
The document added further fuel to congressional Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and sharpened its focus, ensuring Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine become the centre of efforts to oust him from office over allegations he abused his presidential power.
A Politico poll showed support for impeachment had jumped seven percentage points in less than a week, with 43 per cent of voters surveyed now saying Congress should begin impeachment proceedings, and an equal number opposed. Among Republican voters, support for impeachment doubled from 5 per cent to 10 per cent.
At a raucous committee hearing Thursday, acting national intelligence director Joseph Maguire defended his delay in releasing the complaint, while Democrats and Republicans drew battle lines for the coming fight over Mr. Trump’s presidency.
The whistle-blower wrote the letter on Aug. 12. The revelation of its existence two weeks ago touched off the current political conflagration and pushed the White House Wednesday to release a transcript of Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky. But until Thursday, the text of the complaint had been secret.
In the document, the whistle-blower says he heard about the events described from Trump administration officials. The whistle-blower’s identity has been kept confidential. The New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reported that he is a CIA agent who was seconded to the White House.
The complaint first details the discussion between the two countries’ presidents in which Mr. Trump pressed Mr. Zelensky to probe Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who previously had business interests in Ukraine. Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky that his personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, would be in touch to co-ordinate the investigation.
That conversation set off a flurry of activity in Mr. Trump’s circle, the letter recounts. Mr. Giuliani met in Madrid on Aug. 2 with Andriy Yermak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky. U.S. officials told the whistle-blower this was a “direct follow-up” about the “cases” discussed in the phone call. Mr. Giuliani also contacted Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, and the head of Ukraine’s security service, Ivan Bakanov.
During July 26 meetings in Kiev, U.S. special representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker and U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland gave Ukrainian officials advice on “how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made” of Mr. Zelensky, the complaint says.
Back in Washington, the whistle-blower alleges, “senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call.” White House lawyers ordered that the transcript of the call be removed from the computer system where it would normally be stored and placed into a separate system reserved for “especially sensitive” classified information where fewer people could access it. This was not the first time the White House had hidden records of Mr. Trump’s conversations with world leaders in the national security vault, the complaint says.
The whistle-blower also says Ukrainian officials were told Mr. Trump would only speak with Mr. Zelensky if he agreed to “play ball” on the investigations, and that the President told Vice-President Mike Pence to cancel plans to attend Mr. Zelensky’s swearing-in this spring until they could suss out the new Ukrainian leader.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that Democrats’ impeachment inquiry would “focus” on Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. She accused the White House of “a cover-up” in trying to hide records of the President’s conversations.
Mr. Trump, for his part, erupted at a private breakfast for United Nations staffers in New York.
“Who’s the person who gave the whistle-blower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” the President said in audio posted online by the Los Angeles Times. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart, right, with spies and treason? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
At the intelligence committee hearing, Mr. Maguire defended his decision not to immediately release the letter, arguing that it was subject to executive privilege because it involved Mr. Trump’s conversation with a foreign leader. “This case is unique and unprecedented,” he said.
But Democrats reamed him for taking the complaint to the White House when the President was at its centre. Mr. Maguire repeatedly refused to say whether he had discussed the letter with Mr. Trump. “If the subject of a complaint can stop a complaint from getting to Congress, then the most serious complaints will never get here,” committee chair Adam Schiff said.
Republicans on the committee counterattacked, claiming the accusations were the product of a conspiracy between Democrats, journalists and nefarious government officials.
“The Democrats and their media mouthpieces and a cabal of leakers are ginning up a fake story with no regard to the monumental damage they’re causing to our public institutions,” said Congressman Devin Nunes.
Some observers marvelled at the speed with which the Democrats have moved toward impeachment after months of prevarication over Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference and Mr. Trump’s attempts to thwart that investigation.
“A lot of people who have been following this closely are a bit stunned. It feels like everybody is waking up,” Jennifer Rodgers, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and legal scholar, said in an interview. “It’s gratifying that people are paying attention.”
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