President Donald Trump was told that a whistleblower had filed a complaint about his call with the leader of Ukraine several weeks before he unfroze nearly $400 million in military aid to the country, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
The latest details add more context to the president’s decision-making in the days after he sought to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter. Trump’s behavior on the July 25 call has become the crux of Democrats’ impeachment investigation, which moved into the public earlier this month as a parade of current and former officials testified openly about their knowledge of the call.
The whistleblower, an anonymous intelligence officer, filed the complaint with the intelligence community’s inspector general in mid-August, saying he was troubled that the president may have delayed the military aid in order to force Zelensky to open the Biden investigation. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company until earlier this year, although neither he nor his father has been accused of any wrongdoing.
Critics have cast the pressure campaign as a clear demand for a political favor in exchange for White House action, although Trump has vehemently rejected that characterization and said repeatedly the call was “perfect.”
Trump eventually released the $391 million in military aid in early September after a bipartisan group of lawmakers objected to its holdup and Democrats launched an investigation into the supposed demands. The Times noted that it’s unclear how much of the complaint the president knew about before he released the funds.
The Times, which cited two people familiar with Trump’s knowledge of the call, noted two White House lawyers told the president a whistleblower had accused him of wrongdoing in late August. The complaint would usually be submitted to congressional lawmakers who oversee the intelligence community, but the attorneys, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy, John Eisenberg, determined that the administration could keep it under wraps. They also asked the Justice Department if they could withhold the complaint, and the agency’s Office of Legal Counsel agreed.
However, Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, determined it should be handed over to Congress, setting off a tussle over the contents of the complaint. It became public in September, and Trump later released a reconstruction of his call with Zelensky in an attempt to clear his name. The document, however, included several instances in which the president pressured his counterpart for investigations, including the line: “Do us a favor, though” while discussing the military aid.
The president and his allies have been scrambling to contain the fallout from the ongoing impeachment inquiry into his behavior for weeks, particularly after officials began testifying in public hearings earlier this month. Last week, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said explicitly that there was a clear demand for a quid pro quo when Trump spoke with Zelensky, saying he “followed the president’s orders” to get the Ukrainians to pursue the investigations.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland said during his testimony last week. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes. Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Many administration officials with direct knowledge of the demands, however, have refused to testify as the White House has moved to resist demands it comply with the House inquiry.
Republicans in Congress have remained steadfast behind the president throughout the process, accusing Democrats of trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election.