White House concealed Trump calls with Russia, Saudi Arabia: reports
The White House tried to conceal the contents of phone calls between Trump and other world leaders, including Russia’s Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, CNN and The New York Times reported.
Trump is currently under fire a call asking Ukraine to investigate an election rival and allegations that the White House then tried to cover it up by storing the transcript in a system typically reserved for the country’s top secrets.
The White House has confirmed some of the details, and Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry over the call.
The transcripts of calls with other leaders were moved to a secure system and transcripts were not circulated as normal after the White House was frustrated by leaks from other calls, the reports said.
Trump’s conversation with Bin Salman addressed the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi a Saudi consulate, but there is no evidence of wrongdoing from Trump during the call, officials told the outlets.
The White House reportedly tried to lock down the transcripts of President Donald Trump’s calls with other world leaders, including Russia’s Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, according to reports from CNN and The New York Times.
The Times, citing current and former officials, said that the call transcripts were stored in a computer system that is typically used for highly classified materials.
The process began over a year ago because details from some earlier conversations between Trump and world leaders, including Australia’s president, had leaked, the Times reported.
The calls, with leaders that Trump has maintained controversial relationship with, sometimes took place during politically sensitive times, according to both outlets, with Trump’s conversation with Bin Salman addressing the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi a Saudi consulate.
Both outlets said there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by Trump during the call.
Bin Salman denies any direct involvement in the killing but experts say it is “inconceivable” that it took place without his knowledge, and Trump has come under fire for maintaining his relationship with the crown prince since.
Trump is currently facing heavy criticism over a call with Ukraine’s president, which promoted Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry against him and sparked accusations of a cover up by the White House.
An intelligence community whistleblower claimed that White House officials tried to “lock down” records of the call, especially the transcript.
The whistleblower claimed that White House lawyers directed officials to remove the electronic transcript from its usual electronic system, and move it to a system reserved for particularly sensitive, classified information.
The system is intended to safeguard “code word” documents — some of the country’s most sensitive information.
A senior White House official confirmed to CNN on Friday that National Security Council lawyers decided that the transcript of that phone call in that system. The statement did not address the whistleblower’s allegation that other transcripts had been treated in the same way.
Kellyanne Conway, a White House counselor, told reporters on Friday that “as I understand, the document was handled appropriately at all times.”
The whistleblower said that some officials worried that this transfer “would be an abuse of the system, and that it was “not the first time” that a transcript of a Trump conversation has been put into this system.
It is not clear whether Trump’s conversation with other leaders were put in this same system, the Times reported.
A memo of the call, which is not a transcript but is instead made from staff notes about the call, revealed that Trump asked Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, former vice president and Trump’s current election rival, and to interfere with the probe into Russian meddling with the 2016 elections.
Citing people familiar with the matter, CNN reported that aides took “remarkable” steps to stop the conversations with other world leaders from becoming public.
No transcript of the call with Bin Salman was circulated to officials and officials who would typically get a transcript of such calls did not get them, according to CNN.
Access to the transcript of Trump’s call with Putin was “highly restricted,” CNN also reported.
Trump’s calls with other Saudi officials — including King Salman and Prince Khalid bin Salman, who at the time was then the Saudi ambassador to the US — were also placed in the same system as the calls with Bin Salman and Putin, the Times reported.
Sam Vinograd, who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, told CNN: “In my experience you would never move a transcript to the code word system if it does not have any code word terms.”
“If the president is classifying and declassifying stuff he doesn’t want to get out, that is an abuse of power and abuse of the system,” said Vinograd, who now serves as a CNN national security analyst.
Trump denies any wrongdoing, and maintains that his call with Zelensky was a “perfect” phone call. Republicans argue that there was no evidence of quid pro quo during the call.
Trump tweeted on Friday: “If that perfect phone call with the President of Ukraine isn’t considered appropriate, then no future President can EVER again speak to another foreign leader!”