Note: this article, featuring our National Security Analyst Irvin McCullough, was originally published here.
Whistleblower Complaint Released to Public by House Intelligence Committee
Complaint describes several White House officials as ‘deeply disturbed’ about President Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart.
The House Intelligence Committee released to the public a whistleblower complaint that has sparked an impeachment push against President Trump, an aspect of which involves his call with Ukraine’s president.
The panel also released a letter from the inspector general regarding the complaint. The release came shortly before the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, was set to testify before the panel.
The whistleblower complaint, submitted in August, focused on the July call between Mr. Trump and Ukraine’s president, details of which were revealed by the White House on Wednesday following intense focus in Washington on the matter.
On the July call, Mr. Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, released by the White House on Wednesday. In the call, Mr. Trump mentioned the aid that the U.S. provides Ukraine, but didn’t present it as an explicit quid pro quo.
The whistleblower complaint alleges that there was an effort within the White House in the days following the July 25 call with Mr. Zelensky to “lock down” all records related to it, “especially the word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced” by the White House Situation Room. White House officials told the complainant they had been “directed” by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system that stores those transcripts and allows for distribution to Cabinet-level officials, the report staid.
“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 transcript was instead stored on a separate system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature, the complaint said.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Thursday: “Nothing has changed with the release of this complaint, which is nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings—all of which shows nothing improper.” The president “has nothing to hide,” she said.
The complaint paints a picture of several White House officials wracked with concern about the president’s activities, describing them as “deeply disturbed” about the call.
“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 declassified complaint, which contains some redactions, also states that the whistleblower learned from U.S. officials that Mr. Trump instructed Vice President Mike Pence to cancel a planned trip to Ukraine to attend Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration. Energy Secretary Rick Perry led a delegation instead, and the officials said that it was “made clear” to them that Mr. Trump didn’t want to meet with Mr. Zelensky until Mr. Trump saw how his counterpart “chose to act.”
The whistleblower said it wasn’t clear how that guidance was communicated, or whether it aligned with a broader understanding that such a meeting would depend on whether Mr. Zelensky would investigate the Biden family.
In a separate Aug. 26 letter released by the committee, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson said he had sent a notice to the White House requesting access to and the “preservation of any and all records” related to Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian leader.
Mr. Atkinson argued that Mr. Trump’s alleged use of his office to solicit foreign help in a U.S. election—which is against the law—falls under the Director of National Intelligence’s purview because that office is charged with helping safeguard U.S. elections from foreign interference.
In making that case in his letter to Mr. Maguire, the inspector general cited Mr. Trump’s own executive order on the topic, issued in September 2018. In that order, Mr. Trump wrote that foreign interference in U.S. elections “constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
While Democrats said the transcript and the complaint further bolstered the need for their impeachment inquiry, Republicans defended Mr. Trump’s activities as routine communications with a foreign leader.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence transmitted the complaint on Wednesday afternoon. Lawmakers on congressional intelligence committees began reading the complaint in secure rooms within the Capitol that are built to view classified information.
Mr. Maguire referred the whistleblower report to the Justice Department for a possible investigation into whether Mr. Trump had committed campaign-finance violations, department officials said on Wednesday. Justice officials concluded within weeks that there wasn’t enough evidence to open a criminal probe and declined to do so.
In addition to the complaint being transmitted to Congress following weeks of standoff between Congress and the executive branch, the whistleblower also appears likely to appear privately before the intelligence committees later this week.
It couldn’t be determined how the complainant will be able to appear before the panels without risking the exposure of the whistleblower’s identity. “It’s hard to imagine this whistleblower stays anonymous for much longer,” said Irvin McCullough, a national-security analyst at the Government Accountability Project who has worked on whistleblower cases.
In a seven-page opinion released Wednesday, the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel advised the director of national intelligence that the whistleblower’s complaint didn’t require reporting to Congress. The complaint didn’t constitute an “urgent concern” because it didn’t come in connection to U.S. government intelligence activity, but in “a confidential diplomatic communication between the president and a foreign leader” that the whistleblower received secondhand, the opinion said.
The whistleblower, whose identity remains unknown to Justice Department officials, said unnamed White House officials had expressed concern about the content of the phone call. Michael Atkinson, the Trump-appointed inspector general, said his preliminary review found some signs “of an arguable political bias on the part of the [whistleblower] in favor of a rival political candidate,” but nonetheless concluded that the allegations appeared credible.