WASHINGTON — White House officials said President Donald Trump abused "his office for personal gain" by asking the president of Ukraine during a phone call to investigate a political rival, leaving them "deeply disturbed," according to a whistleblower complaint made public on Thursday.
And in the days following the phone call, White House officials sought to cover up the call, the whistleblower alleged, adding their complaint constituted an "urgent concern."
Senior White House officials were directed by White House lawyers to "lock down" records of the call between the two leaders, the whistleblower wrote. Specifically, the officials were tasked with removing the electronic transcript from the computer system in which transcripts are typically stored and upload it to a separate system used to handle classified information.
"One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective," the whistleblower wrote. (The whistleblower later noted that White House officials told them this was “not the first time” that the White House placed a presidential transcript in that system to protect “politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”)
The whistleblower said in the complaint that they were not a "direct witness" to these events, but said they found the events credible because "multiple officials recounted fact patterns that were consistent with one another."
"In the course of my official duties, 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. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President's main domestic political rivals. The president's personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General [Bill] Barr appears to be involved as well," the complaint reads.
"I am also concerned that these actions pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. Government's efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections," the whistleblower wrote.
On Thursday morning, Trump told members of the US Mission to the United Nations that he wanted to know the identity of the whistleblower’s sources, saying that anyone who provided information to the whistleblower is “close to a spy,” and suggested it was treason, a source confirmed to BuzzFeed News. The comments were first reported by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and the LA Times later published audio of his remarks.
"Basically, that person — never saw the report, never saw the call, he never saw the call — heard something and decided that he or she, whoever the hell it is — sort of like, almost a spy. I want to know who is the person who gave the whistleblower— who is the person who gave the whistleblower the information because that’s close to a spy," Trump said.
"You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason. We used to handle it a little differently than we do now," the president added to some laughter.
News of the complaint’s existence, first reported by the Washington Post just a week ago, has set off a firestorm in Washington. After the White House refused to give a copy of the complaint to members of Congress, dozens of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, announced their support for an impeachment inquiry for the first time. Pelosi cited that refusal specifically in formally announcing an impeachment investigation on Tuesday, calling it a “violation of law.”
The administration eventually relented and sent a copy of the complaint to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees Wednesday afternoon. It was declassified and then made public Thursday morning.
The complaint’s release comes after the White House put out a transcript (it is not verbatim) Wednesday morning of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the US president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to help dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election. During the call, Trump also made vague references to CrowdStrike, the company hired to investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election, and former special counsel Robert Mueller.
According to the complaint, about a dozen White House officials listened in on the call.
In the complaint, the whistleblower outlined a detailed timeline of events leading up to the July 25 call.
In May, the whistleblower wrote, US officials "were deeply concerned" that associates of Giuliani were trying to make contact with aides to Zelensky, who had recently won the Ukrainian election.
"I heard from multiple U.S. officials that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani's circumvention of national security decisionmaking processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and [President Trump]," the complaint reads.
According to the complaint, State Department officials spoke with Giuliani "in an attempt to 'contain the damage' to U.S. national security," and at the same time met with Ukrainian leaders to help them makes sense of the differing messages they were receiving from official US channels and Giuliani.
The whistleblower wrote in the complaint that around this same time US officials said Ukrainian officials were led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the two countries' leaders was dependent on whether Zelensky showed willingness to "play ball" on investigating Biden and his son as well as digging up any information that could help Trump attack the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said on the call, appearing to refer to Barr, according to the transcript released Wednesday. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
Following the July 25 phone call between the two leaders, the whistleblower wrote that state officials met with Ukrainian officials to provide advice on how to "navigate the demands" Trumps made.
In early August, Giuliani took a trip to Spain to meet with a Zelensky aide, something US officials viewed as "a direct followup" to the July 25 call, the complaint states.
The whistleblower filed the complaint on Aug. 12 after hearing about Trump’s call with Zelensky from White House officials. The whistleblower was not on the call, but said their complaint was based on conversations with "more than half a dozen White House officials" over the course of four months that they found to be "consistent." The inspector general of the Intelligence Community found that the complaint was “credible" and a matter of "urgent concern" — a specific legal term that triggers a congressional disclosure requirement — and forwarded it to the Justice Department on Aug. 26.
The Justice Department concluded, however, that the complaint did not meet the threshold to send it to Congress and had initially blocked its release. Steven Engel, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote a legal opinion released Wednesday defending the decision, arguing the reporting responsibilities did not apply because the complaint didn’t involve “intelligence activities” and the president is not an intelligence official.
Trump repeatedly brought up having Zelensky talk to Barr during the July 25 call, but the Justice Department has tried to distance the attorney general from the conversation. In a statement, DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec said that Barr didn't learn about the call until several weeks later.
"The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son. The President has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine – on this or any other matter. The Attorney General has not communicated with Ukraine – on this or any other subject. Nor has the Attorney General discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani," Kupec said.
A senior DOJ official said that Barr wasn't involved in crafting the Office of Legal Counsel opinion or in the Criminal Division's legal analysis about whether to open a criminal campaign finance investigation based on the whistleblower's allegations. The final decision not to start an investigation was made by the head of the Criminal Division, Brian Benczkowski — although absent recusal, Benczkowski and Engel ultimately answer to Barr.
"This is a coverup," Pelosi told reporters Thursday, after reading the complaint.
The House speaker argued that the White House's decision to try to lockdown a transcript of the call meant that they "understood the gravity" of Trump's interaction with Zelensky and so they tried to "hide" it. "Whatever other explanation there might be, an explanation is also that there is a coverup," she said.
The whistleblower has volunteered, through a lawyer, to testify before Congress and has asked acting director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire for guidance on how to make that possible.
Maguire testified at an open House Intelligence hearing Thursday. He is also scheduled to speak to the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors Thursday, as is the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson.
House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff asked Maguire Thursday morning if he found the complaint credible, to which Maguire answered, “it’s not for me to judge, sir.”
After Schiff re-asked the question, adding “can we at least agree that the inspector general made a sound conclusion that this whistleblower complaint was credible," Maguire replied, “That is correct.”
Maguire said he did not know who the whistleblower is, but he believed that the person was "acting in good faith."
Schiff asked Maguire if he agreed that the allegations listed by the whistleblower are worthy of an investigation, but Maguire deferred, saying, “I believe that it is a matter of the chair of this committee.”
When asked if the committee should talk to others who allegedly witnessed the conversation between Trump and Zelensky, Maguire stood firm. “My responsibility was to get you the whistleblower letter, the complaint, and the other information released. I have done my responsibility,” Maguire said, adding that it’s up to the legislative branch and the Intelligence Committee to further investigate or call on additional witnesses.
Much of the hearing centered around Maguire defending himself for withholding the complaint, which he said boiled down to two things: whether the national intelligence community considered the report of “urgent concern” and what kind of executive privilege, if any, extended to the details of a conversation between the president and Zelensky.
Schiff pressed him on why it took so long for Maguire to deliver the complaint to Congress, and Maguire said it was because he'd never seen a situation like this before.
"Everything here in this matter is totally unprecedented," he said.
Miriam Elder and Zoe Tillman contributed reporting to this story.