White House staff repeatedly stored records of President Donald Trump’s calls in an electronic system reserved for “especially sensitive” classified information to protect him politically, changing standards on treating that information in a way that alarmed career professionals. This explosive new allegation appears in the whistleblower complaint on Trump’s interactions with Ukraine that was provided to Congress Wednesday and released to the public on Thursday.
Under instructions from White House lawyers, the summary of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “was placed into a standalone computer system reserved for codeword-level intelligence information, such as covert action,” the whistleblower wrote.
“This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what transpired in the call,” the whistleblower observed in the complaint, suggesting that the White House efforts were part of a top-down cover-up.
“Some officials voiced concerns internally that this would be an abuse of the system,” the complaint read. “According to White House officials I spoke with, this was ‘not the first time’ under this administration that a presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive ― rather than national security sensitive ― information.”
Normally, such transcripts would be stored in a separate computer system where they could be finalized and distributed to the president’s Cabinet, per the whistleblower.
The revelation has major implications for the question of Trump’s potential wrongdoing in office and for Capitol Hill investigators considering whether to impeach him.
It suggests that Trump’s behavior in the call with Zelensky ― which involved pressure to investigate his political rival Joe Biden that Democrats and even some Republicans have called disturbing ― wasn’t the first time he had interacted with foreign leaders in a way that would cause alarm at home. Lawmakers will want to know what the other calls treated in this way might show, about Trump’s willingness to, as he did in the Ukraine case, seek help from abroad in an election and threaten U.S. citizens, or violate other legal and ethical standards around matters like, say, changing U.S. policy for personal gain or an international quid pro quo, flouting Congress or the courts or making money for his businesses.
The whistleblower’s report also points to many relevant witnesses, from officials dealing with national security matters at the White House to aides at the White House counsel’s office, who can provide information on what kinds of calls were treated this way, when the approach originated and, most important, who specifically directed and knew about this change in practice. And it raises the prospect that as investigations and media reporting ramp up, additional whistleblowers or individuals who assess it’s wise to turn on Trump will provide new details on other damaging material contained in the calls.
The systematic scale of the effort to protect some transcripts is the strongest signal yet that the political scandal here is not limited to the president’s approach to Ukraine.
“This is a seriously problematic thing,” Kelly Magsamen, who served at the White House under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and is now a vice president at the Center for American Progress, wrote on Twitter. “NOT. NORMAL.”
It now appears that despite the desire from some in Democratic leadership to narrow the focus of the impeachment inquiry, it may well become a full-blown dive into Trump’s conduct that could take months and potentially last until or even beyond the 2020 presidential election.
“These actions pose risks to U.S. security and undermine the U.S. government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections,” the whistleblower wrote.