A whistleblower complaint pushed White House officials and lawyers into the impeachment fray Thursday as potentially part of an administration cover-up, as the document described how they moved to “lock down” all records of President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The scant details of the lawyers’ decisions — coupled with the fact that the whistleblower had only heard of this information second-hand — raise more questions about their actions and make them potential witnesses as Democrats chase new leads in an impeachment investigation.
But there’s not enough information in the complaint to say whether the lawyers acted unethically or illegally in limiting the number of people with access to such a politically explosive document, legal experts said.
“I don’t see proof in the complaint; just flashing warning signs that any Congress should want to investigate further,” University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said.
Kate Shaw, who worked in the White House counsel’s office in the Obama administration and is now a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said in an email that the revelations concerning White House lawyer involvement are “extremely alarming.”
According to the whistleblower, whose identity remains confidential, White House lawyers “directed” White House officials to remove the official word-for-word transcript of the call from the computer system where it is usually stored.
The lawyers discussed how to treat the call, the whistleblower said, “because of the likelihood, in the officials’ retelling, that they had witnessed the President abuse his office for personal gain.”
In the call, Trump urged Ukraine to talk to his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr about opening a potential corruption investigation connected to Trump’s main political rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
Democrats say the call shows a president using the Oval Office to advance his personal interests above those of the country.
The transcript was loaded into a system managed by the National Security Council Directorate for Intelligence Programs that is reserved for “codeword-level intelligence information,” the whistleblower said in the complaint.
“This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call,” the whistleblower’s complaint states.
The whistleblower wrote that it would be an abuse of the national security system, and he had been told it was “not the first time” the Trump administration had put a politically sensitive presidential transcript on there.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., indicated Thursday that his probe would look at the White House lawyers.
“I do not know whether similar measures were taken to restrict access to other records of the call, such as contemporaneous handwritten notes taken by those who listened in. We should find out, shouldn’t we?” Schiff asked Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence.
Maguire said that Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s watchdog, asked the White House counsel to control and keep any information that pertained to the call. He also said the White House lawyer actions were not something under his authority or responsibility.
Schiff also asked Maguire at one point that if the records were moved “in an effort to cover up essentially potential misconduct, that ought to be looked into, you would agree with that, wouldn’t you?”
Outside the hearing, the details about lawyers were enough for former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich to tweet that the whistleblower complaint “makes clear the wrongdoing not only of POTUS and Giuliani but the coverup engineered by WH lawyers.”
With such an explosive issue, it seems likely either White House Counsel Pat Cipollone or his top advisors would have been in on the decisions.
“Nothing has changed with the release of this complaint, which is nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings— all of which show nothing improper," Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary, said in a statement that praised Trump for the "extraordinary and transparent steps" of releasing the readout of the call and the complaint itself. "That is because he has nothing to hide. The White House will continue to push back on the hysteria and false narratives being peddled by Democrats and many in the main stream media, and President Trump will continue to work hard on behalf of the American people as he always does.”
Government officials are not supposed to use the classification system to avoid political embarrassment, said Alan Rozenshtein, a former attorney in the Justice Department’s National Security Division who now teaches law at the University of Minnesota.
But less classified information is on more classified servers all the time. The guidelines and customs about handling classified information are more concerned about classified information released publicly than making sure unclassified information isn't put on a classified server, Rozenshtein said.
Doing so with such an explosive transcript is a way “that doesn’t expose it and at the other hand doesn’t destroy it and therefore open up potential destruction of evidence,” Rozenshtein said.
Typically, it’s not crazy to try to keep sensitive information “as locked down as possible” when you’re in the White House, Rozenshtein said, but this shows that everyone around Trump understood “just how appalling this conduct was.”
Only against the background of who this president is, and who he’s surrounded himself, and the context of the call, does the action to lock down the information “look particularly suspicious,” Rozenshtein said.
John Bennett contributed to this report.
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