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Echoes of Watergate: Report shows how Trump administration tried to cover up effort to get dirt on political rival

2019-09-26

The White House staffers scrambled to cover up President Trump’s dicey gambit to draft a foreign leader in his plot to dig dirt on Joe Biden, hiding a phone-call transcript from cabinet members on a secret server, according to a bombshell whistleblower report released Thursday.

The insider said senior White House officials tried to “lock down” all records of a July call in which Trump sought to pressure Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In a plot that echoes Watergate, the president’s men ordered staffers to stash the transcript of the call in an ultra-secret system separate from the one in which such documents are normally stored, according to the unidentified whistleblower.

“This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call,” the whistleblower wrote in his report, which is likely to expedite Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into the president.

Trump immediately responded to the release of the report in an all-caps tweet that sought to rally GOP support for his embattled presidency.

“STICK TOGETHER, PLAY THEIR GAME, AND FIGHT HARD REPUBLICANS. OUR COUNTRY IS AT STAKE!” Trump tweeted before deleting the message without explanation.

He later lashed out at Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Cal.), suggested the whistleblower is “almost a spy” who should face punishment, and mused about whether he could somehow stop the impeachment process.

“Democrats are going lose the election and they know it. That’s why they are doing it,” he said at Andrews Air Force Base after returning from his three-day trip to New York. “There should be a way of stopping it.”

On Wednesday, Trump suggested that the complaint was the work of a single disgruntled Democratic sympathizer who had infiltrated his administration.

The inspector general, however quotes at least six officials as witnesses to what appear to be strong evidence of impeachable offenses.

“Multiple U.S. officials told me that the Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call [with Trump] would depend on whether Zelensky showed willingness to ‘play ball,’” the whistleblower said.

The complaint also suggested that the White House may have acted to hide other presidential statements, raising the possibility that other impeachable abuses of power may have been covered up.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slammed the administration’s conduct.

“This is a cover-up,” she said, repeating the phrase for emphasis.

“The president of the United States in his actions in a telephone call with a head of state betrayed his oath of office, our national security and the integrity of our elections.”

Trump’s behavior recalled Nixon’s infamous plot find oppo on the Democrats by breaking into the party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972, followed by efforts to withhold a recording that proved he’d illegally blocked the FBI’s investigation into the matter.

“If this was all so innocent,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), “why did so many officials in the White House, in the Justice Department and elsewhere make such large efforts to prevent it from being made public?”

Trump on Thursday continued the tirade that began with Pelosi’s Monday announcement of the impeachment investigation, complete with Nixonian whiffs of paranoia directed at perceived enemies.

He essentially accused the whistleblower and his White House sources of spying and treason, adding that the press are “scum” for good measure. His personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani joined in the fray, dismissing the report as “crap.”

Giuliani plays a starring role of sorts in the whistleblower’s nine-page account, which says Giuliani alarmed government officials by going around “national security decision making processes” to do Trump’s bidding.

Giuliani, the ex-mayor of NYC who’s morphed into one of Trump’s most aggressive attack dogs, had several communications with Zelensky’s advisors after the phone call, according to the report.

On one occasion, Giuliani traveled to Madrid to speak with a Zelensky adviser, a rendezvous that a concerned official characterized to the whistleblower as a “follow-up” to Trump’s call.

Giuliani has admitted to conducting an extensive effort to find dirt on Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter. Giuliani has said without proof that the ex-veep wanted Ukraine’s former top prosecutor fired to prevent an investigation of Hunter, who was previously on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Trump asked Zelensky to communicate with both Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr, according to a rough transcript of the call released Wednesday.

The report said Barr “appeared to be involved” in Trump’s effort to get dirt on Biden, but did not go into detail about the AG.

The whistleblower is a CIA officer who was detailed to the White House, the New York Times reported Thursday. He’s returned to the agency since the report emerged.

The White House initially refused to give Congress either a transcript of the call with Zelensky or a copy of the whistleblower complaint, but relented after House Democrats initiated an impeachment probe.

They say Trump tried to use the power of American foreign policy for his personal political gain, a violation of his oath of office.

Congressional Republicans were mostly mum about the new documents Thursday. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to answer questions from reporters during the day.

However, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said, “Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president — this is not okay. That conversation is not okay. It’s disappointing to the American people.”

The fact that a possible White House cover-up involved computer servers would amount to an ironic twist in the Trump scandal, given his obsession with Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal server to host emails.

Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff, said the White House has an alternate server for only the most secret U.S. covert actions, such as the effort to kill Osama bin Laden.

That server would not have been an appropriate place to move records of a conversation like the one between Trump and Zelensky, which was only sensitive because Trump may have broken laws barring soliciting foreign help.

“It would not have been a place to hide activities of the president,” Pfeiffer told CNN.