WASHINGTON — The White House released both a whistleblower complaint against him over a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as well as a summary of the call itself, but will likely soon face a new demand: congressional access to the White House officials who gave information to the whistleblower.
The House Intelligence Committee has not set forth any time table for such a request, although Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said Thursday that the unidentified whistleblower provides “a road map” for the committee’s investigation.
“There is a whole host of people, apparently, who have knowledge of these events that the whistleblower makes reference to,” Schiff said after Trump’s acting director of national intelligence testified that he believed the whistleblower had acted in good faith. “So we know what we have to do. And of course, we’ll be guided by the evidence that we find along the way.”
Senior White House officials said they had not yet decided how they will respond once there is a formal request for that testimony. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” said one on condition of anonymity, adding that Trump had allowed both the transcript and the complaint to become public “rather than let this false cover-up narrative continue.”
Trump himself on Thursday continued the disparagement of the whistleblower he had started days ago with claims that the intelligence community employee had filed the complaint for “partisan” reasons. Speaking during a visit to State Department employees and families of the United Nations mission in New York, Trump likened both the whistleblower and the sources to “spies,” according to audio obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
“I want to know who’s the person that gave the whistleblower ― who’s the person that gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right?” Trump said. “The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
Treason is punishable by death under the U.S. criminal code, but its definition specifically pertains to taking up arms against the United States or giving aid and comfort to an enemy in a time of war — neither of which could apply in the current situation.
The whistleblower, moreover, is by law protected from retaliation.
Whether Trump could legally block White House staffers who are not high-level advisers from testifying is unclear. What’s more, Democrats in the House would likely have more power to compel testimony from all White House employees once impeachment proceedings have officially started.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday announced that the House was starting an “impeachment inquiry,” but the full chamber has yet to take a vote that would formalize that.
Pelosi, of California, had been reluctant to pursue impeachment since taking control of the House in January following last November’s midterm elections that gave Democrats control of the chamber. Trump appeared to have dodged impeachment this spring after Democrats failed to aggressively respond to the 10 instances detailed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in which Trump tried to block that probe.
That situation changed rapidly, though, after Schiff revealed on Sept. 13 that Trump’s administration was blocking a whistleblower complaint from reaching Congress that the intelligence community’s inspector general — a Trump appointee — had found both “credible” and “urgent.”
Media reports slowly began revealing details of the episode underlying the report: Trump’s decision to withhold nearly $400 million in assistance, including military aid, to Ukraine, just days before he held a phone call with that country’s new president in which he asked him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, whom Trump believed would be the strongest Democratic nominee against him next year.
Trump on Wednesday released a transcript summary of the July conversation based on notes taken of the call by national security staff. The complaint itself was released by Schiff’s committee Thursday after it received a redacted version of it Wednesday afternoon.
While the White House and Trump allies have argued that neither shows any wrongdoing by Trump, both documents have galvanized House Democrats to support the start of impeachment proceedings and have made at least some Republicans nervous about Trump’s actions.
Among the details revealed in the complaint: White House lawyers were so worried about the nature of the Ukraine call that they ordered staff to “lock down” records pertaining to it in a stand-alone computer storage system normally set aside for highly classified material, such as covert military operations, thereby preventing normal distribution across the various national security agencies.
Further, the whistleblower wrote, records of previous Trump calls had been similarly cached away “for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive ― rather than national security sensitive ― information.”