WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said on Friday that National Security Council lawyers made the decision about how to handle the record of President Trump’s July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine, which a whistle-blower says was placed into a highly classified computer system accessible to only a small number of officials.
“N.S.C. lawyers directed that the classified document be handled appropriately,” said a senior administration official. The statement was first reported by CNN.
But the official did not actually say how the document was handled, nor address the whistle-blower’s specific charge that the rough transcript, in what would be a highly unusual action, was moved from a computer system widely accessible to National Security Council officials to one reserved for specialized code-word information like covert operations and foreign surveillance.
A White House spokesman did not respond when asked about that specific claim.
Democrats in Congress and former N.S.C. officials and lawyers in both parties have said such an action, if motivated by a desire to conceal Mr. Trump’s political pressure on the Ukrainian leader, would be far from appropriate, and at a minimum, unethical.
Democrats say the president abused his power by conditioning aid for Ukraine on whether its government investigated his 2020 campaign rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his son Hunter Biden, and will examine whether that constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor. The treatment of the document will form part of that inquiry.
In his complaint, the whistle-blower said that unnamed White House officials told him that they had been “‘directed’ by White House lawyers” to remove the record of the call from the National Security Council’s main computer system and load it into one managed by the agency’s intelligence directorate that is not connected to the main system and that requires special permissions and enhanced security clearances to access.
The administration official did not name any of the lawyers involved. The National Security Council, which is part of the White House, is advised by lawyers who report to the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone. The National Security Council’s chief legal adviser is John Eisenberg, a Cipollone deputy and former partner at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis who joined the Trump administration in early 2017.
That would have the effect of vastly reducing the number of people who can read — and therefore leak — the document, in what the whistle-blower’s complaint called an acknowledgment that the president’s comments to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had been highly improper.
“One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective,” the whistle-blower wrote. His complaint also alleged that other, unspecified presidential transcripts had received similar treatment.
Mr. Trump has dismissed the whistle-blower, a C.I.A. official, as a “partisan” who lacks firsthand knowledge of the events he has described, and the president likened his sources to traitorous spies.
On Friday, Mr. Trump continued to rage on Twitter over the events that prompted House Democrats to initiate impeachment and he again defended his interactions with Mr. Zelensky. “If that perfect phone call with the President of Ukraine isn’t considered appropriate, then no future President can EVER again speak to another foreign leader,” he tweeted.
Mr. Trump and his allies have continued their effort to deflect attention from the president’s actions and onto the former vice president and Hunter Biden, who was given a lucrative energy company board seat by a Ukrainian oligarch at a time when Mr. Biden was in office and pressing Ukraine to crack down on corruption in the country.
Mr. Biden, backed by the Obama administration and European allies, forced out the country’s top prosecutor in 2016, a man widely viewed as corrupt, and who was taking little action to pursue an open case against the energy company, Burisma Holdings.
Mr. Trump has charged his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani with digging up dirt on the Bidens. He has also directed Mr. Giuliani to explore unfounded theories that Russia’s 2016 operation to meddle in the United States presidential election actually originated in Ukraine.