WASHINGTON — While Democrats argue that President Donald Trump’s Ukraine phone call reveals the president abused the powers of his office, Republicans are raising a different concern — that the phone call was revealed at all.
Several Republicans called for an investigation Thursday into which White House staffers leaked details of the call to the person who ended up filing a whistleblower complaint, echoing Trump’s own request.
“I don’t know how the hell he can be president under these conditions, it’s just incredible,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham. Graham said it was imperative to find out which White House staffers talked to the whistleblower and why.
Rep. Devin Nunes, another of Trump’s top allies in Congress, rang alarm bells that “a cabal of leakers are ginning up a fake story with no regard to the monumental damage they’re causing to our public institutions and trust in government” as acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified before the House Intelligence Committee.
Their comments come hours after Trump told members of the US Mission to the United Nations he wanted to know the identity of the White House officials who gave information to the whistleblower, comparing them to spies and alluding to treason. (Audio of the remarks was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.)
Republicans also warned Thursday that making the transcript of the phone call public will have long-lasting repercussions, and hamstring Trump and future presidents in international diplomacy.
“It will make our country weaker,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “Any other leader that’s talking to him is going to wonder if that whole conversation is going to be leaked. How can you have an honest discussion?”
Democrats have focused their attention, and investigative tools, on whether the president pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who had Ukrainian business dealings. It has become the centerpiece of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
The whistleblower alleged in their complaint released Thursday that White House officials tried to bury the Trump–Zelensky phone call, removing the electronic transcript from the normal database of presidential phone calls and uploading it instead to a system for classified information.
Democrats are alleging a cover-up, but several Republicans argue this was simply a prudent move.
“I’m certainly sympathetic with the White House trying to keep a communication between the President of the United States and a world leader confidential,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. “Those have been leaked in the past, so yeah I think it would be irresponsible not to take precautions.”
However, the whistleblower alleged that the transcript was moved not for national security reasons but for political purposes. Asked about this, Johnson said the whistleblower cannot be trusted because they were not a firsthand witness. (The whistleblower has acknowledged they were not on the call, but said their complaint was based on reports from multiple White House officials over a period of four months.)
Instead, Johnson repeatedly stressed the damage that will come from making Trump’s call public.
“Any future president, how can they conduct foreign policy? Certainly not over the phone. Who’s going to speak, as a world leader, candidly to the American president now that this precedent has been set?” he said.
Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, echoed Johnson, saying he has no trouble with the White House trying to keep the president’s conversation private. “There’ve been a couple of other incidents where presidential conversations have been leaked, and so the White House taking whatever motions it deems appropriate to protect privileged conversations between heads of state — I don’t find that offensive,” he said.
Conaway did caution against Trump’s invocation of treason, however. “Throwing the word 'treason' around is as dangerous as throwing the word 'impeachment' around,” he said. “This is a big deal. And I understand the president might have said it, but lots of people say lots of things. No, this was not treason. The whistleblower is said to appear credible. For any of us to use phraseology that’s inflammatory like that — I’d rather us not do that.”
Democrats are unmoved by Republicans’ concerns. The result is the far-from-unprecedented situation where Democrats and Republicans are talking about the same issue, but in ways that are totally unrecognizable from each other.
“If their best shot is to go after a leak, they may as well hang it up,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin.
“Those are pathetic objections. It shows that they are already involved in the business of irrelevant distraction of the core issue: The president went abroad to extract information from a foreign government about a political opponent.”
Kadia Goba contributed to this story.