Still seething over the whistleblower complaint that triggered a House of Representatives impeachment query, President Donald Trump returned to Washington on Thursday lashing out at congressional Democrats and the news media and hinting at retribution for government officials who assisted the whistleblower in accusing the president of misusing his powers of office.
Trump returned to the White House from several days in New York attending the U.N. General Assembly. He returned the same time the House Intelligence Committee was holding a hearing on the administration's delay in submitting the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress.
The complaint asserts that Trump in a July 25 phone call sought help from the new president of Ukraine in digging up dirt about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son that would hurt Biden’s prospects of winning the Democratic presidential nomination and challenging Trump in 2020.
Trump instructed his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to hold back nearly $400 million in military assistance for Ukraine at least a week before the call, according to The Washington Post, to put pressure on the Ukrainian leader — a claim Trump bitterly disputes.
Speaking to reporters at Joint Base Andrews, Trump denounced the Democrats’ tactics as “a disgrace” and accused House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and nemesis of the president, of “making up stories.”
“It’s a disgrace to our country,” he said. “It's another witch hunt. Here we go again. It's Adam Schiff and his crew making up stories and sitting there like pious whatever you want to call them. It's just a — really, it’s a disgrace.”
Trump doubled down on his defense that he had done nothing inappropriate in his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and on his accusations of corruption by Biden and his son Hunter — allegations that so far the administration has not backed up with evidence.
Before leaving New York, Trump told staff from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations that he wanted to know who provided information to the whistleblower, saying that whoever did so was “close to a spy” and that “in the old days,” spies were dealt with differently, according to The New York Times.
Trump made his comments as acting U.S. Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire told lawmakers he had complied with his “responsibility to follow the law every step of the way'' as he faced questions about why he initially blocked the release of the whistleblower complaint now at the center of the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s actions formally announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this week.
Maguire told the House Intelligence Committee he could not legally disclose the complaint because he “did not have the authority to waive” executive privilege.
The acting DNI, who told lawmakers he believed the matter was “unprecedented,'' was also scheduled to speak to members of the Senate's Intelligence Committee behind closed doors.
Ahead of his public testimony, the House committee released text of the whistleblower complaint.
"In the course of my official duties, 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 complaint said. It added that Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Guiliani, was a central figure in this effort and that Attorney General William Barr appeared to be involved as well.
White House lockdown
The complaint also said the White House then attempted to “lock down” the information to prevent its public disclosure, including by removing the transcript of the call from the computer system that is typically used for such records of calls with foreign leaders and loading it into a separate electronic system that is used only for classified information that is of an "especially sensitive nature."
The complaint noted that a White House official described that as an abuse of the secure system because there was nothing "remotely sensitive" on the phone call from a national security perspective.
The whistleblower noted that White House officials said this was "not the first time" the Trump administration had placed a presidential transcript into this “codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive, rather than national security sensitive information."
'Most graphic evidence'
The White House dismissed the complaint as "nothing more than a collection of thirdhand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings, all of which shows nothing improper."
But in opening remarks of Thursday's House hearing, Schiff said the complaint was “the most graphic evidence yet that the president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office.”
Schiff said that as the Ukrainian president tried to ingratiate himself to Trump during the call, Trump’s response “reads like a classic organized-crime shakedown.”
According to the summary of the call released by the White House on Wednesday, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, a potential rival for the presidency.
The call summary also showed that Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to speak with Giuliani, whom he referred to as a "highly respected man," as well as Barr. Trump said that Giuliani would be traveling to Ukraine. Zelenskiy said he would meet with Giuliani when he visited.
"I'm reeling from the content of the complaint. It's horrifying. America is facing a clear and present danger to our continued existence as a republic," former Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub told VOA.