Soon after President Trump took office nearly three years ago, he demanded to know who would serve as his Roy Cohn, the infamous bare-knuckled lawyer who had once defended him, mob bosses and gossipy celebrities in New York.
Judging by the whistleblower complaint at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, the president finally seems to have gotten his wish.
Not only does the complaint detail the president’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate his political enemies, it suggests a deep bench of officials were willing to participate in his scheme or help keep it under wraps. Although the whistleblower said other White House officials were “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s actions, none have come forward.
The scandal — potentially the most dangerous of Trump’s tenure — is a vivid reminder of how he has bent the White House apparatus to serve him personally, much like the gilt-edged private company in Manhattan that bears his name and served as his launchpad into politics.
On Thursday, an enraged Trump lashed out at the whistleblower, at Democrats, and at the media, even as he seemed to joke about his yearning to stay at the pinnacle of power, a forever fixture in the global spotlight.
“We’re looking good for another four years, and then if we want to another four and another four,” Trump told a private event in New York before he returned to Washington.
The complaint, which was partially redacted, portrays a president willing to hijack foreign policy to further his political interests. In July, Trump delayed nearly $400 million in foreign aid to Ukraine, a country that has been fending off Russian-backed separatists, and then told its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a week later that he wanted a “favor.”
Trump urged Zelensky to investigate CrowdStrike, a California-based cybersecurity company that had worked for Democrats in 2016, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, whose son Hunter had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
According to a White House account of the call, Trump urged Zelensky several times to deal with America’s top law enforcement official, Atty. Gen. William Barr, and talk to his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who does not work for the government, about the investigations.
Two months earlier, according to the complaint, Trump had instructed Vice President Mike Pence to cancel plans to attend Zelensky’s inauguration and sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead. Trump also made clear he would not meet or talk with the new Ukranian president unless he was willing to “play ball” on the investigations, the whistleblower wrote.
Giuliani already was serving as Trump’s private emissary to Ukraine’s new government. He urged officials to investigate issues that could help the president, spoke with State Department officials about his efforts, and pushed to get the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine recalled.
A career foreign service officer who had urged Ukraine’s government to crack down on corruption, Marie Louise Yovanovitch was ordered home in May. Giuliani told a Ukrainian journalist that she had been “part of the efforts against the president.”
“I heard from multiple U.S. officials that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decision-making processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the president,” the whistleblower wrote.
On July 26, the day after Trump spoke by phone with Zelensky about Biden, two senior State Department officials visited the new leader in Kyiv.
Kurt Volker, the top U.S. envoy for Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, “provided advice ... about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the president had made.”
Back in Washington, White House officials worried about how to handle records of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. Roughly a dozen White House officials — a mix of policy experts and duty officers in the Situation Room — had listened in, a standard practice for communications between heads of state.
Some were so disturbed by Trump’s comments that they began talking to White House lawyers about “what had transpired,” the whistleblower wrote.
But senior White House officials moved to “lock down” records of the call, the whistleblower wrote. They directed aides to move the electronic transcript to a computer system that normally holds highly classified material, a decision that one official described as “an abuse” because the call “did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective,” according to the complaint.
The whistleblower wrote it wasn’t the first time the White House had used the classified network “solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”
After the complaint was filed on Aug. 12, other officials also were willing to shield the president. Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, said it was an “urgent concern” that required Congress to be provided a copy, but the acting intelligence director, Joseph Maguire, turned to the Justice Department for legal advice.
Barr has been one of Trump’s most implacable legal defenders, and government lawyers determined that Trump’s actions did not break the law, brushing off Atkinson’s concerns.
Despite being stymied by Maguire and the Justice Department, Atkinson notified the House Intelligence Committee of the impasse on Sept. 9, the first crack in the secrecy that had shielded Trump.
The complaint became public less than three weeks later.