Senior White House officials have been accused of trying to cover up details of an explosive phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky which has opened the US president up to potential impeachment.
Washington was rocked last week when an unnamed US intelligence whistle-blower accused the president of “multiple acts” of misconduct including pushing a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political rival.
The revelations prompted Nancy Pelosi, the most senior House Democrat, to announce that the party was pushing ahead with a formal impeachment inquiry against the Republican president.
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The scandal further deepened yesterday when it emerged the Trump administration may have attempted to withhold evidence of the call, a blatant obstruction of justice.
So what exactly is going on and what could it mean for Trump?
What are the whistle-blower’s claims?
Much of the controversy centres around Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden. In transcripts of the call released by the White House, Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “do me a favour” by investigating unfounded allegations against the former vice president.
In the newly released complaint, the whistle-blower says this amounts to Trump “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the US 2020 election”.
Trump’s personal Lawyer Rudy Giuliani did little to dampen speculation when he was confronted by CNN anchor Chris Cuomo over whether he had previously asked Ukraine to “look into” former vice president and current presidential hopeful Joe Biden.
“No, actually I didn’t,” Giuliani responded. “I asked the Ukraine to investigate the allegations that there was interference in the election of 2016 by the Ukrainians for the benefit of Hillary Clinton.”
However, when the question was put to him once more seconds later, he responded: “Of course I did.”
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Why are there accusations of a cover-up?
The complaint also claims the Trump administration attempted to cover up and withhold evidence relating to the call.
White House lawyers “directed” officials to remove an electronic transcript of the 25 July call from a system where such notes are usually stored, according to the whistle-blower.
They said it was “not the first time under this administration that a presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive - rather than national security sensitive – information”.
“This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call,” the whistle-blower wrote in the complaint.
The White House has acknowledged the transcript was not necessarily a verbatim account of the exchange between the two leaders.
“The claim – that the White House essentially sought to make notes of that call less accessible – is the most explosive revelation in the whistle-blower complaint which was finally made public on Thursday”, says the Telegraph.
How has Trump responded?
The president has responded in typically disdainful fashion, dismissing the impeachment proceedings as a “hoax” and “witch-hunt”, yet even he seems rattled by the fast-moving developments.
Trump acknowledged that he personally blocked nearly $400m in military aid to Ukraine days before he spoke to Zelensky, but denied any “pressure” was applied, saying the call was “friendly”.
The release of the whistle-blower complaint came as US lawmakers on the House of Representatives intelligence committee began to question Trump's top intelligence official on the issue.
Acting National Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire had initially refused to share the complaint with Congress, prompting accusations from angry Democrats he was seeking to withhold vital evidence.
Jim Himes, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, told the MSNBC network that Maguire “broke the law when he decided to basically intercept the inspector general’s report to Congress”.
“This has never been done before in the history of inspector general reports to the Congress, and the American people should be worried about that,” he added.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, also excoriated Maguire for not immediately presenting the whistle-blower’s complaint to Congress, as mandated by law.
He went on to say the complaint was evidence of the “graphic betrayal of the president’s oath of office”.
“I think there are any number of potential crimes when a president is soliciting for an assistance again in another presidential election,” he said.
Devin Nunes, the senior Republican on the committee, dismissed the document, “however, cracks were emerging in the Republican support for Trump” says The Times.
Ben Sasse, a senator from Nebraska, said: “American elections should be for Americans. And the idea that we would have foreign nation-states coming into the American electoral process, or the information surrounding an election, is really, really bad.”
Few Republicans have been willing to publicly criticise Trump. However, Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, claimed that as many as 30 senators would vote to remove Trump from office if a secret ballot were taken.
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