Whistleblower says White House tried to cover up Trump call

The White House faced accusations of a cover-up on Thursday after the publication of a whistleblower complaint that alleged officials used a classified storage system to hide the transcript of a call between President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart.

The complaint added new details to a widening controversy over the call in which the US president asked his Ukrainian opposite number Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Mr Trump’s potential election rival Joe Biden and the business dealings of his son, Hunter.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, who announced impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump over the call earlier this week, said the White House had engaged in a “cover up”.

According to the whistleblower — an anonymous intelligence official whose concerns have sparked an impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump — White House officials restricted access to details of the presidential call by storing the information in a specially classified storage system.

“I learnt from multiple US officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced,” the whistleblower said in the written complaint. “This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”

White House officials said internal lawyers debated how to handle the details of the July call, due to the “likelihood . . . that they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain”, the whistleblower added.

In a sign that the White House will face tough questions about why it tried to conceal the details of the phone call, the whistleblower said officials said it was “not the first time” that transcripts of Mr Trump’s calls had been stored in the classified system.

The complaint was released by the House intelligence committee on Thursday morning ahead of testimony from Joseph Maguire, the acting head of the US intelligence community, who had earlier blocked sharing the whistleblower complaint with Congress, saying he did not have the authority to do so.

Explaining concerns about how White House officials handled the transcript, the whistleblower said it was removed from the normal electronic storage system for transcripts and put in a separate electronic system used for very sensitive 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,” wrote the whistleblower, who noted they were “not a direct witness to most of the events described” in the complaint.

That prompted a tweet from Mr Trump, who wrote: “A whistleblower with second hand information? Another Fake News Story! See what was said on the very nice, no pressure, call. Another Witch Hunt!”

The White House said the complaint was “nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings” that showed nothing improper.

“The president took the extraordinary and transparent steps of releasing the full, unredacted, and declassified transcript of his call with President Zelensky, which forms the heart of the complaint, as well as the complaint itself. That is because he has nothing to hide,” said Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary.

The whistleblower said information from more than 12 government officials appeared to show that Mr Trump put pressure on a foreign leader for political gain by soliciting interference in the 2020 US election. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was a “central figure” and US attorney-general William Barr “appears to be involved as well”, the complaint said.

The House intelligence panel released the complaint moments before Mr Maguire started testifying about what he described as an “unprecedented” situation. Adam Schiff, the Democrat who chairs the committee, said it was a “travesty” that the whistleblower complaint was “held up for this long”.

Mr Maguire said White House lawyers told him the call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky fell under “executive privilege”, a term made famous during the Watergate hearings, and he therefore had not been able to share the whistleblower complaint with Congress.

Mr Schiff first revealed the existence of the complaint earlier this month, saying that Mr Maguire had, in an unprecedented move, blocked the inspector-general from sharing it with Congress.

Mr Maguire refused to answer whether he discussed the complaint with the president, saying his conversations with Mr Trump were “privileged” and it would be inappropriate for him to divulge details to the committee. He later said that Mr Trump did not ask him to find out who the whistleblower was.

Mr Schiff said the whistleblower “has shown more dedication to country, more of an understanding of the president’s oath of office than the president has ever demonstrated”.

The whistleblower “did the right thing” and “followed the law every step of the way”, Mr Maguire said. “I believe the whistleblower is operating in good faith,” he told the committee. 

Devin Nunes, the committee’s senior Republican, accused Democrats of rolling out “their latest information warfare operation against the president”.

Follow Lauren Fedor and Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @laurenfedor and @dimi

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