Washington: President Donald Trump had already been briefed on a whistleblower’s complaint about his dealings with Ukraine when he unfroze military aid for the country in September, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Lawyers from the White House counsel’s office told Trump in late August about the complaint, explaining that they were trying to determine whether they were legally required to give it to Congress, the people said.
The revelation could shed light on Trump’s thinking at two critical points under scrutiny by impeachment investigators: his decision in early September to release $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine and his denial to a key ambassador around the same time that there was a “quid pro quo” with Kyiv. Trump used the phrase before it had entered the public lexicon in the Ukraine affair.
Trump faced bipartisan pressure from Congress when he released the aid. But the new timing detail shows that he was also aware at the time that the whistleblower had accused him of wrongdoing in withholding the aid and in his broader campaign to pressure Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to conduct investigations that could benefit Trump’s reelection chances.
The complaint from the whistleblower, a CIA officer who submitted it to the inspector general for the intelligence community in mid-August, put at the center of that pressure campaign a July 25 phone call between the presidents, which came at a time when Trump had already frozen the aid to the Ukrainian government. Trump asked that Zelenskiy “do us a favor,” then brought up the investigations he sought, alarming White House aides who conveyed their concerns to the whistleblower.
The White House declined to comment.
The whistleblower complaint, which would typically be submitted to lawmakers who have oversight of the intelligence agencies, first came to light as the subject of an administration tug of war. In late August, the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, concluded that the administration needed to send it to Congress.
But the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and his deputy John Eisenberg disagreed. They decided that the administration could withhold from Congress the whistleblower’s accusations because they were protected by executive privilege. The lawyers told Trump they planned to ask the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to determine whether they had to disclose the complaint to lawmakers.
A week later, the Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the administration did not have to hand over the complaint.
It is unclear how much detail the lawyers provided Trump about the complaint. The New York Times reported in September that White House advisers — namely, Cipollone and Eisenberg — knew about the whistleblower complaint in August. But the specifics of when and how Trump learned of it have not previously been reported.
The whistleblower, whose identity has not been made public, accused Trump of abusing his power by inviting a foreign power to interfere on his behalf in the 2020 election. He described the pressure campaign to get Zelenskiy to publicly commit to investigations of Democrats that could potentially benefit Trump and suggested that a temporary hold that the administration had placed on assistance to Ukraine, which is fighting a war against Russian proxy forces, might be related to the effort.
New details also emerged Tuesday about that decision to freeze the security assistance to Ukraine. An official from the White House budget office, Mark Sandy, testified that on July 12, he received an email from the office of the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, notifying him that Trump had directed that administration officials freeze Ukraine’s military aid.
Trump had enthusiastically sought the investigations for much of the summer. But in early September, he told one of his top diplomats — Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who helped carry out the shadow policy toward Ukraine — that he was not seeking “a quid pro quo” with the Ukrainian government by withholding the aid.
Sondland said that when he called Trump to inquire about why the aid had been withheld, an irritated Trump insisted he was not seeking anything from the Ukrainians. But the president said that he wanted Zelenskiy “to do the right thing,” Sondland testified to Congress last week, suggesting that he was still seeking the investigations into Democrats that could help his political fortunes.
There are discrepancies about whether Sondland spoke to the president on September 7 or 9. The administration lifted the freeze on aid to Ukraine on September 11, as lawmakers’ demands grew. Two days earlier, three Democratic-led House committees had opened an investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Only days after the president learned of the whistleblower complaint, he spoke with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., about the aid holdup. Johnson sought permission to tell Zelenskiy at an upcoming meeting in Ukraine that Trump had decided to release the security assistance, according to Johnson.
Trump replied that he was not ready, Johnson said. He said he asked later on the call whether the aid was linked to some action that the president wanted the Ukrainians to take.
“Without hesitation, President Trump immediately denied such an arrangement existed,” Johnson wrote in a letter this month to House Republicans.
Trump erupted in anger and began cursing, he wrote.
“‘No way,’” Trump said, according to Johnson. “‘I would never do that. Who told you that?’”
The White House has kept a tight hold on details about the actions of Trump and his senior aides in the Ukraine affair.
The president has refused to let top advisers testify in the impeachment inquiry, leaving a void that Republicans have exploited. They argue that the evidence that Democrats have gathered is insufficient because it contains few firsthand accounts linking the president to wrongdoing.
But Democrats have not only the transcript of Trump’s July 25 call but also the testimony of Sondland, who said Trump directed him and other top administration officials to maintain pressure on Ukraine.
Both Cipollone and Eisenberg, who briefed Trump in late August about the whistleblower complaint, had been following up on other complaints by administration officials about the Ukraine matter since early July.
Cipollone had suggested to Eisenberg in July that he tell Trump that White House staff members had raised concerns about a shadow Ukraine policy. Eisenberg, who does not typically brief Trump, never followed up on the suggestion.
Michael S. Schmidt, Julian E. Barnes and Maggie Haberman c.2019 The New York Times Company