Just five days ago, while shouting at reporters next to a noisy aircraft prior to departing for Houston, where he joined India’s Narendra Modi for a 50,000-strong stadium rally, Donald Trump described his July 25 call with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Just so you understand, the conversation I had with the president of Ukraine was absolutely perfect”, he declared, loudly. “Absolutely a 10”.
At the time, nobody besides the people who were actually on the call or in the room knew exactly what was said, but given that the conversation was at the center of a whistle-blower complaint the White House had spent a month trying to keep away from Congress, everyone had a pretty good idea that “perfect” probably wasn’t the best adjective for the call with Zelensky.
As it turns out, the call was anything but “perfect”.
Instead, the “rough” account released by the White House found Trump repeatedly imploring Zelensky to conspire with Rudy Giuliani and William Barr to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden.
Trump also asked Zelensky to look into rumors tied to the 2016 election and, for good measure, disparaged Robert Mueller and former US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who Trump called “bad news”.
And that’s just what America learned from the version the White House voluntarily released.
Apparently, Trump believed his tried-and-true strategy of implicitly claiming that abuse of power is somehow acceptable as long as it’s either done in public or made public later, would work with the Zelensky call. Instead, releasing the account of the conversation made things immeasurably worse.
The whistle-blower complaint, released on Thursday, reveals that White House officials didn’t think the call was any semblance of “perfect”. In fact, they thought it was so toxic that “multiple” administration officials tried to “lock down” all records of it, “especially the word-for-word transcript”.
That effort, the complaint reads, “underscored that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired”.
As noted here minutes after the declassified complaint was made public, the lengths the administration is said to have gone to in order to hide the account of the call were extraordinary. Officials told the whistle-blower that White House lawyers directed them to “remove the electronic transcript from the computer system” and load it into a “separate electronic system” normally reserved for “especially sensitive” material.
Hilariously (or not, depending on whether you’re inclined to laugh at White House cover-ups), the decision to quarantine the transcript on the separate database might have itself constituted an abuse of power. At the least, it was “an abuse of [the] electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective”, one official said.
So, in addition to the complaint detailing the extent to which Rudy Giuliani, a private citizen without a security clearance, is conducting US foreign policy in a clandestine fashion outside of official government channels solely to advance the agenda of his client (Trump), the whistle-blower complaint also revealed a vast cover-up of a call which Trump continues to hold up as an example of a diplomatic exchange that’s “absolutely a 10” on his imaginary scale for rating phone calls between world leaders.
To be clear, the transfer of the transcript to the separate storage system is a big deal. “The system where the transcript was allegedly stored is for highly classified information, such as covert operations, and can only be accessed with a code word and has to be approved by a senior White House official with a written record”, the Washington Post writes, adding that “in order to transfer a call from the normal storage system to the National Security Council’s code-word-protected network, “a very senior White House official – someone as high as the chief of staff or the national security adviser – must make a formal written request to do so”. That’s according to current and former officials, as well as a pair of people who worked with memos of calls between the president and foreign leaders.
Still, the Post notes that it comes as no surprise. Indeed, it’s part of a pattern that dates back to 2017.
“The White House has taken extraordinary steps over the past two years to block details of President Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders from becoming public, following embarrassing disclosures early in his administration that enraged the president and created a sense of paranoia among his top aides”, WaPo says, in the same linked article, which details the steps Trump has taken to protect the calls, including reducing the number of people allowed to listen in, cutting the list of officials permitted to review memos, distributing fewer copies of transcripts to various agencies and branding them with all-caps “EYES ONLY DO NOT COPY” stamps.
Bloomberg on Thursday evening released the video of Trump suggesting he might physically harm the whistle-blower’s sources. The remarks were initially reported by The New York Times. The LA Times subsequently released the audio. Here is the video:
Republican Senator Susan Collins called Trump’s remarks “a gross mischaracterization of whistle-blowers [and] not acceptable in any way”.
“The president’s comments today constitute reprehensible witness intimidation and an attempt to obstruct Congress’ impeachment inquiry”, Eliot Engel, Adam Schiff and Elijah Cummings said.
As far as public opinion goes, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on Thursday shows Americans support the impeachment inquiry 49%-46%. “The pollsters warn that the new developments could change public opinion quickly, especially with 7 in 10 saying they are paying attention to the news”, NPR notes, summarizing the results.
Adam Schiff – whose committee of course interviewed acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire on Thursday – wants to know what, exactly, Giuliani and Barr have been up to.
“We want to know what role Rudy Giuliani had in all of this. We want to know what role Bill Barr had in any of this”, he said. “We want to know what Ukraine understood was expected of them before they even had this July phone call with the president of the United States”.