WASHINGTON — The White House learned that a CIA officer had lodged allegations against President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine even as the officer’s whistleblower complaint was moving through a process meant to protect him against reprisals, people familiar with the matter said Thursday.
The officer first shared information about potential abuse of power and a White House cover-up with the CIA’s top lawyer through an anonymous process, some of the people said. She shared the officer’s concerns with White House and Justice Department officials, following policy. Around the same time, he also separately filed the whistleblower complaint.
The revelations provide new insight about how the officer’s allegations moved through the bureaucracy of government. The Trump administration’s handling of the explosive accusations is certain to be scrutinized in the coming days and weeks, particularly by lawmakers weighing the impeachment of the president.
Lawyers for the whistleblower refused to confirm that he worked for the CIA and said that publishing information about him was dangerous.
“Any decision to report any perceived identifying information of the whistleblower is deeply concerning and reckless, as it can place the individual in harm’s way,” said Andrew Bakaj, his lead counsel. “The whistleblower has a right to anonymity.”
Neither the White House nor the National Security Council, its foreign policy arm, responded to requests for comment. The CIA referred questions to the inspector general for the intelligence agencies, Michael Atkinson, who declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, said that protecting the whistleblower was his office’s highest priority. “We must protect those who demonstrate the courage to report alleged wrongdoing, whether on the battlefield or in the workplace,” Maguire said at a hearing on Thursday, adding that he did not know the whistleblower’s identity.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, said The Times was right to publish information about the whistleblower. “The president and some of his supporters have attacked the credibility of the whistle-blower, who has presented information that has touched off a landmark impeachment proceeding,” Baquet said. “The president himself has called the whistle-blower’s account a ‘political hack job.’’’
Baquet added, “We decided to publish limited information about the whistleblower — including the fact that he works for a nonpolitical agency and that his complaint is based on an intimate knowledge and understanding of the White House — because we wanted to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not he is credible. We also understand that the White House already knew he was a CIA officer.”
During his time at the White House, the whistleblower became deeply unnerved about how he believed Trump was broadly seeking to pressure the Ukrainian government to conduct investigations that could benefit him politically. “Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the president’s 2020 reelection bid,” said the complaint, which was released Thursday.
During a July 25 call, Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to investigate unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son and other matters he saw as potentially beneficial to him politically, according to a reconstituted transcript released by the White House on Wednesday.
The whistleblower was detailed to work at the White House at one point, according to three people familiar with his identity, and has since returned to the CIA.
His complaint suggested he was an analyst by training and made clear he was steeped in details of U.S. foreign policy toward Europe, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of Ukrainian politics and at least some knowledge of the law.
The whistleblower’s expertise will likely add to lawmakers’ confidence about the merits of his complaint, and tamp down allegations that he might have misunderstood what he learned about Trump. He did not listen directly to the July call, but some White House colleagues told him that they were concerned they had witnessed “the president abuse his office for personal gain,” according to the complaint.
The week after the call, the officer delivered a somewhat broad accusation anonymously to the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, according to multiple people familiar with the events. The initial allegations reported only that serious questions existed about a phone call between Trump and a foreign leader.
As required by government policy, Elwood began to try to assess whether a “reasonable basis” for the accusation existed. During the preliminary inquiry, Elwood and a career CIA lawyer learned that multiple people had raised concerns about Trump’s call.
Elwood also called John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and her counterpart at the National Security Council, according to three people familiar with the matter. He was already aware of vague concerns about the call.
Elwood, Eisenberg and their deputies spoke multiple times the following week. They decided that the accusations had a reasonable basis.
Eisenberg and Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, according to three people familiar with the discussion. Elwood did not pass on the name of the CIA officer, which she did not know because his concerns were submitted anonymously.
The next day, Demers went to the White House to read the transcript of the call and assess whether to alert other senior law enforcement officials. He decided to notify the deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division, according to two administration officials.
Department officials began to discuss the accusations and whether and how to follow up. Attorney General William Barr learned of the allegations around that time, according to a person familiar with the matter. While Barr was briefed, he did not oversee the discussions about how to proceed, the person said.
But as White House, CIA, and Justice Department officials were examining the accusations, the CIA officer who had lodged them anonymously grew concerned after learning that Elwood had contacted the White House, according to two people familiar with the matter. While it is not clear how the officer became aware that she shared the information, he concluded that the CIA was not taking his allegations seriously.
That played a factor in his decision to become a whistleblower, they said. And about two weeks after first submitting his anonymous accusations, he decided to file a whistleblower complaint to Atkinson, a step that offers special legal protections, unlike going to a general counsel.
Elwood and Eisenberg learned only later about the complaint, filed on Aug. 12, and did not know it was sent by the same officer who had sent the information anonymously to her.
At the end of August, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred the allegations to the Justice Department as a possible criminal matter. Law enforcement officials ultimately declined to open an investigation.
The revelation that the White House knew that a CIA officer was expressing concerns before he filed a whistleblower complaint demonstrates a weakness in a law meant to protect him from reprisals and shows that he was at risk of retaliation long before Trump obliquely threatened him on Thursday.
“I always advise whistleblowers against going to general counsels because the general counsels have to report the matter,” said Dan Meyer, the former executive director of the intelligence community whistleblowing program and managing partner of the Washington office of the Tully Rinckey law firm. “They are like tuna in a shark tank.”
Maguire defended the government’s handling of the complaint, noting the whistleblower’s accusations had been delivered to Congress and the reconstructed transcript of Trump’s call had been released. “Everything here in this matter is totally unprecedented,” he said at the hearing.
Speaking to State Department employees at a closed-door meeting, Trump said the whistleblower was “almost a spy,” and said he wanted to identify his sources, suggesting that punishment awaited them. It was unclear what Trump meant, but the punishment for treason and espionage can include the death penalty.
The whistleblower has identified at least a half-dozen government officials — including several who work for the White House — who he believes can substantiate his claims. The inspector general has interviewed some of the people and found the whistleblower’s claims credible.
Agents, officers and analysts from the military, intelligence and law enforcement communities routinely work at the White House. Often, they work on the National Security Council or help manage secure communications, like calls between the president and foreign leaders.
The CIA officer did not work on the communications team that handles calls with foreign leaders, according to the people familiar with his identity. He learned about Trump’s conduct “in the course of official interagency business,” according to the complaint.
Officials regularly shared information to “inform policymaking and analysis,” the complaint said. It raises the prospect that the whistleblower was not detailed to the White House either during the events in question or when he learned about them.
After the call, multiple officials told the whistleblower that future talks between Trump and Zelenskiy would depend on whether the Ukranians would “play ball” on the investigations he sought.