House Democrats’ fast-growing impeachment investigation centered on President Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to help him against a political rival gained strength Thursday as a whistleblower’s extraordinary complaint became public, revealing a claim that White House officials tried to “lock down” records of the president’s actions.
The news drew quick accusations of an attempted White House cover-up from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and a furious retort from Trump, who likened the whistleblower to “a spy.”
Musing about “what we used to do in the old days” in cases of “spies and treason,” he said, “we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
According to the whistleblower’s complaint, a redacted version of which was released Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee, White House officials took unusual steps in the days after Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to secure the transcript of the call.
“White House officials told me that they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored,” the complaint said. “The transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”
According to the whistleblower, one official described this as “an abuse” because the call “did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.”
In the call, Trump asked Zelensky to do him a “favor” and help investigate his political opponents, especially former Vice President Joe Biden.
The whistleblower’s allegation about the effort to secrete the documents was one piece of a wide-ranging complaint that expressed fears Trump was hijacking U.S. foreign policy for personal gain. The whistleblower has not been identified, although the New York Times reported that he is a CIA officer who was detailed to the White House for a time and has since returned to the CIA.
Pelosi said the allegations about Trump’s contacts with Ukraine would now be the central focus of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
“Their actions are a cover-up,” Pelosi said at her weekly news briefing Thursday. “It’s not only happened that one time. My understanding is it may have happened before.”
According to the complaint, White House officials said the effort to keep the Zelensky call under wraps was “not the first time” extra steps had been taken “for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”
Pelosi did not give any timeline for the impeachment inquiry, saying “there is no rush to judgment.”
But, she added, the allegations go significantly beyond previous accusations against Trump.
“We are at a different level of lawlessness that is self-evident to the American people,” Pelosi said.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who led the first House hearing Thursday into the new allegations, agreed.
“What has come to light in the last couple of weeks, for many of us, is just a bridge too far,” he told The Times in an interview.
Trump, repeating that his call to Zelensky was “perfect,” denounced the proceedings in the House.
“It shouldn’t be allowed. There should be a way of stopping it. Maybe legally through the courts,” he told reporters as he returned to Washington from New York, where he had been attending the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
Earlier, during a closed-door meeting with members of the U.S. mission to the U.N., Trump lashed out at the whistleblower and those who relayed the details of the July conversation with Ukraine’s president.
“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” he said.
Trump also referred to Biden as “Sleepy Joe” and said he was “dumb as a rock” and denounced “press scum.”
He expressed confidence about his chances in 2020 and beyond: “We’re looking good for another four years and then if we want to, another four and another four,” he said, drawing laughter from some of those in the room.
By contrast with Trump, Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, defended the whistleblower in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, which held its first public hearing into the matter.
The whistleblower “did the right thing” and “followed the law every step of the way,” said Maguire, a retired three-star admiral and former Navy SEAL.
Democrats at the hearing criticized Maguire for not immediately turning over the complaint to the committee after it was filed last month. They argued he was required to do so under the law.
Maguire testified that because the complaint focused on the president, and not on the intelligence community, it raised legal issues that he thought made it “prudent” to work out before sending the complaint to Congress.
The complaint was “an unprecedented” and “unique situation,” he said.
The redacted version of the complaint was made public shortly before the committee was scheduled to begin its public hearing with Maguire.
Schiff opened the hearing by calling the whistleblower’s complaint and the White House account of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian leader “the most graphic evidence yet that the president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office. Betrayed his oath to defend our national security. And betrayed his oath to defend our Constitution.”
Trump “sacrificed our national security and the Constitution for his personal political benefit,” Schiff said.
Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a Republican member of the committee and former CIA official, said in a statement on Twitter that “there is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning. We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter, and the first step is to talk to the whistleblower.”
The whistleblower has agreed to testify provided that a lawyer can be present. White House officials have not made clear whether they would attempt to place any limits on the testimony.
The whistleblower did not personally witness or listen to Trump’s call with Zelensky — a point some Republicans seized on to characterize the complaint as “hearsay” — but the complaint’s description of the Trump-Zelensky conversation closely mirrored the account of the call released by the White House on Wednesday.
“The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call,” the complaint said. “They told me there was already a ‘discussion ongoing’ with White House lawyers about how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials’retelling, that they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain.”
The whistleblower said there was no explanation given to national security officials for why Trump was delaying critical military aid for Ukraine at the same time he was pushing Zelensky to help investigate Biden.
“I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote in the complaint.
The complaint provides a more wide-angle view of the scandal than the memorandum of Trump’s call that the White House released. It discussed attempts by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to network with Ukrainian officials.
“I heard from multiple U.S. officials that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decisionmaking processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the president,” the whistleblower wrote. Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine.
The whistleblower’s complaint went initially in mid-August to the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who wrote in an Aug. 26 letter to Maguire that the allegations involved matters that could create “serious national security and counterintelligence risks.”
Atkinson also determined that the complaint was an “urgent concern,” which by law required notifying Congress. In justifying his assessment, Atkinson used Trump’s executive order on foreign election interference. In that order, Trump wrote that foreign interference constituted “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Atkinson expressed concern that the president’s request for Ukraine to investigate Biden could violate campaign finance laws, which bar contributions of money or services from foreign nationals. A spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. William Barr said Wednesday that the Justice Department reviewed that claim but determined no laws were broken.
Atkinson found the complainant to be credible, given the whistleblower’s “official and authorized access” and “subject matter expertise” as well as other information the inspector general gathered during a preliminary review.
Atkinson noted that the whistleblower had “some arguable political bias … in favor of a rival political candidate,” but added that it didn’t change his assessment that the person was credible.
The inspector general, who was appointed by Trump, also said he had sent requests to agencies in the intelligence community for access to and “the preservation of any and all records related to the president’s telephone call” and related efforts to allegedly solicit Ukrainian help in the U.S. election.
Times staff writers Alexa Díaz, Sarah D. Wire and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.