The White House severely restricted distribution of memos detailing President Donald Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, after embarrassing leaks of his conversations early in his tenure, a former White House official said.
The White House’s handling of Mr Trump’s calls with foreign leaders is at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
A whistleblower alleges the White House tried to “lock down” Mr Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s new president because officials were worried about his request for help investigating his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
The anonymous whistleblower alleges the White House also tried to cover up the content of other calls by moving memos on to a highly classified computer system.
The former White House official acknowledged other calls were concealed, while casting the decision as part of an effort to minimise leaks, not an attempt to hide improper discussions.
The White House was beset by leaks of highly sensitive information in the early days of Mr Trump’s presidency. He was particularly enraged by leaks that disclosed tough conversations with the leader of Mexico on paying for a border wall and with Australia on abiding by an Obama administration deal on asylum seekers.
After those disclosures, a White House adviser raised the possibility of lie detector tests for the small number of people in the West Wing and elsewhere with access to transcripts of Mr Trump’s phone calls.
In previous administrations, rough transcripts of presidential phone calls were kept private, but not housed on the highly classified computer system unless sensitive national security information was discussed.
Summaries of the calls were distributed to relevant officials in the White House, the State Department and other agencies.
The Trump administration’s process curtailed the number of people who had access. The question is now why.
The whistleblower’s complaint paints a picture of a White House scrambling to conceal damaging information about the president, including the July call in which he pressed Ukraine’s leader for help investigating Mr Biden.
The White House released a rough transcript of the call this past week in which Mr Trump repeatedly says Attorney General William Barr and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani could help with that effort. The call came days after Mr Trump ordered a freeze to some military assistance for Ukraine.
The contents of the restricted calls with Mr Putin and Mr bin Salman are unknown. But Mr Trump’s relationship with both leaders has been controversial, given Russia’s attack on the 2016 US election on his behalf and Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, including the murder of a Washington Post journalist.
On Saturday, a former US ambassador to Nato caught in the middle of the whistleblower complaint resigned from his post as special envoy to the Eastern European nation.
The move followed disclosures Kurt Volker had connected Mr Giuliani with Ukrainian officials to investigate Mr Biden and his family over allegedly corrupt business dealings.
The State Department had no immediate comment on Mr Volker’s resignation and has said only that he put Mr Giuliani in touch with an aide to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Mr Trump has repeatedly sought to discredit the whistleblower in recent days, accusing the anonymous CIA officer of having a political motivation.
His advisers, however, have confirmed some details of the whistleblower’s complaint, but offered different explanations for the White House’s actions.
On Friday, the White House acknowledged the Ukraine call was moved to a highly classified system at the direction of National Security Council lawyers.
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