WASHINGTON (AP) — Sparring line by line over a whistleblower’s complaint, the White House on Friday confirmed a key detail from the unidentified CIA officer who has accused President Donald Trump of abusing the power of his office. At the same time, Trump insisted anew that his actions and words have been “perfect” and the complaint might well be the work of “a partisan operative.”
The White House acknowledged that a record of the Trump phone call that is now at the center of the House impeachment inquiry had been sealed away in a highly classified system at the direction of Trump’s National Security Council lawyers.
Separately, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters that the whistleblower “has protection under the law,” something Trump himself had appeared to question earlier in the day. He suggested then that his accuser “isn’t a whistleblower at all.”
Still at issue is why the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president was put on “lock down,” in the words of the whistleblower. The CIA officer said that diverting the record in an unusual way was evidence that “White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired” in the conversation.
The complaint alleges that Trump used his office to “solicit interference from a foreign country” to help himself in next year’s U.S. election. In the phone call, days after ordering a freeze to some military assistance for Ukraine, Trump prodded new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to dig for potentially damaging material on Democratic rival Joe Biden and volunteered the assistance of both his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
As for the Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday framed the impeachment inquiry as a somber moment for a divided nation.
“This is no cause for any joy,” Pelosi said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and she said she was praying for the president.
“I would say to Democrats and Republicans: We have to put country before party.”
Pelosi refused to set a deadline for the probe but promised to act “expeditiously.”
The House intelligence committee could draw members back to Washington next week. The panel with other committees jointly issued a subpoena on Friday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for documents in the Ukraine matter.
At the White House, it was a senior administration official who acknowledged that the rough transcript of Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s Zelenskiy had been moved to a highly classified system maintained by the National Security Council. The official was granted anonymity Friday to discuss sensitive matters.
White House attorneys had been made aware of concerns about Trump’s comments on the call even before the whistleblower sent his allegations to the intelligence community’s inspector general. Those allegations, made in mid-August, were released Thursday under heavy pressure from House Democrats.
All the while, Trump was keeping up his full-bore attack on the whistleblower and the unnamed “White House officials” cited in the complaint, drawing a warning from Pelosi against retaliation.
Late Thursday, Trump denounced people who might have talked to the whistleblower as “close to a spy” and suggested they engaged in treason, an act punishable by death. Then on Friday, he said the person was “sounding more and more like the so-called Whistleblower isn’t a Whistleblower at all.”
He also alleged without evidence that information in the complaint has been “proved to be so inaccurate,” though none of the allegations have been demonstrated to be incorrect.
Pelosi told MSNBC, “I’m concerned about some of the president’s comments about the whistleblower.”
She said the House panels conducting the impeachment probe will make sure there’s no retaliation against people who provided information in the case. On Thursday, House Democratic chairmen called Trump’s comments “witness intimidation” and suggested efforts by him to interfere with the potential witness could be unlawful.
Trump’s Friday comment questioning the whistleblower’s status seemed to foreshadow a possible effort to argue that legal protection laws don’t apply to the person, opening a new front in the president’s defense, but Conway’s statement seemed to make that less likely.
The intelligence community’s inspector general found the whistleblower’s complaint “credible” despite finding indications of the person’s support for a different political candidate.
Legal experts said that by following proper procedures and filing a complaint with the government rather than disclosing the information to the media, the person is without question regarded as a whistleblower entitled to protections against being fired or criminally prosecuted.
“This person clearly followed the exact path he was supposed to follow,” said Debra D’Agostino, a lawyer who represents whistleblowers. “There is no basis for not calling this person a whistleblower.”
Lawyers say it also doesn’t matter for the purposes of being treated as a whistleblower if all of the allegations are borne out as entirely true, or even if political motives or partisanship did factor into the decision to come forward.
“What a whistleblower needs to have is a reasonable belief that the information they’re disclosing and complaining about could be a violation of a law, rule or regulation,” said Eric Bachman, another Washington lawyer who represents whistleblowers. “They do not need to be certain that there is a violation. It does not need to be proven in a court of law that there is a violation.”
Republicans were straining under the uncertainty of being swept up in the most serious test yet of their alliance with the Trump White House.
“We owe people to take it seriously,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a onetime Trump rival who is now a member of the intelligence committee.
“Right now, I have more questions than answers,” he said. “The complaint raises serious allegations, and we need to determine whether they’re credible or not.”
Fresh questions were raised late Thursday about how the White House and the Justice Department handled the whistleblower complaint.
White House and Justice Department attorneys were aware of the concerns about Trump’s call with Zelenskiy before the complaint was filed, according to a U.S. official and a person familiar with the matter. The intelligence official initially filed a complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine with the CIA, which then alerted the White House and the Justice Department, before filing with the intelligence community’s inspector general, a process that granted the individual more legal protection.
The person familiar with the matter, as well as another person with knowledge of the case, confirmed that the whistleblower was a CIA officer.
The Associated Press is publishing information about the whistleblower’s background because the person’s credibility is central to the impeachment inquiry into the president. The New York Times first reported that the individual was a CIA officer.
The U.S. official and the two people familiar with the matter spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The whistleblower’s attorney, Mark Zaid, said publishing details about the individual places the person in a dangerous situation, personally and professionally. The CIA referred questions to the inspector general.
AP writers Lisa Mascaro, Laurie Kellman, Mary Clare Jalonick, Alan Fram, Padmananda Rama and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.