News Brief: Trump-Ukraine Call, Latest Protests In Egypt
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is just seven pages long, but it could change the course of a presidency. An unclassified version of the whistleblower complaint is now public.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Yeah. And the second sentence in this complaint basically lays it all out. It says, quote, "In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election."
Now, during a July phone call, President Trump asked the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. This complaint also alleges that White House officials put details of this phone call onto a classified server because they were worried about the political implications.
MARTIN: We've got a team of reporters covering this story. We begin with NPR's Ryan Lucas, who has been reading the whistleblower complaint closely. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What's important to understand about what's laid out here in the complaint?
LUCAS: Well, the first thing is this complaint raises the allegation that President Trump pressured the Ukrainian president in a phone call to investigate Joe Biden and Biden's son. And what the whistleblower says in the complaint basically matches what we saw in the account of the call released this week by the White House. But the big headline to come out of this complaint is that the White House allegedly tried to hide evidence of Trump's conversation with the Ukrainian president because officials were worried about what had gone down on the call. The complaint says that White House officials tried to, quote, "lock down all records of the phone call." The whistleblower says that White House lawyers ordered the electronic transcript of the call be removed from the computer system where these transcripts are typically kept and then had it placed instead on a separate system used for highly classified, highly sensitive national security-related materials - and that's despite the fact that this call did not contain national security materials.
MARTIN: Right. And we're going to dig further into what that means in a few moments. But let's talk about the implications of all this. There are lots of details in the complaint. But the author of the complaint says right up front that it's not his or her firsthand information. It's information from, quote, "multiple U.S. government officials." Republicans are seizing on this, right?
LUCAS: Republicans have pushed that line. We heard that up on the Hill in testimony yesterday before the House Intelligence Committee. But as you said, the whistleblower is upfront that most of this information is not firsthand. He or she - because remember, we don't know the identity of this individual - says outright that they were not a direct witness to most of the events. But the whistleblower says the information comes from more than a half dozen U.S. officials. Some of them are folks in the White House. And the complaint says that those officials relayed these accounts - the accounts of these events and details of them - to the whistleblower in the course of regular, very high-level government business. And the whistleblower says that he or she found them credible because the accounts were - they were largely consistent with one another. And there were multiple people providing this information. So it wasn't just a rumor that they heard from one person and were then running with.
MARTIN: Right. And we should say again, the ICIG - the inspector general for the intelligence community - viewed this to be credible enough to elevate it.
LUCAS: And the account of the call matches the account of the call in the complaint.
MARTIN: So now we've got Nancy Pelosi opening an impeachment inquiry. As far as we understand, the same committees - intelligence, justice, others - are still going to be looking into President Trump. What are you looking for? I mean, what is the next step in all this?
LUCAS: There are a lot of breadcrumbs in the whistleblower's report for congressional investigators to follow. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff has said this is basically a roadmap. There are a dozen or so officials who listened in on the president's call with the Ukrainian leader, according to the complaint. Lawmakers will want to talk to them. There are the White House officials and lawyers who were allegedly involved in moving the transcript. They will want to be talked to. There are the big names - Attorney General William Barr, president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Those are people who they'll want to talk to. And, of course, the whistleblower himself or herself - the committees are working to get access to that individual, as well.
MARTIN: Lots more hearings - NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks. We appreciate it.
LUCAS: Thank you.
MARTIN: All right. So as we mentioned, after this phone call took place between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, the whistleblower complaint alleges that the transcript itself of that call was handled in a troubling way.
KING: Right. The whistleblower says that the record of the call was put into what's known as a codeword-level system. Now, that's used for the highest level of classified intelligence. And it's only accessible to a very small, restricted circle of people.
MARTIN: NPR's White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is with us this morning to talk about this. Hi, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What can you tell us about how this system works?
RASCOE: So there are different classification systems. And what seems to be referred to in the complaint would be this compartment within the category of top-secret information. This system is in place for the Trump administration. According to a former NSA - a former NSC official who worked under Trump, what's key about this system is that only select people in the administration would have access to it. This official told NPR's Franco Ordoñez that only about four to six people in the White House likely had access. And information stored there is shared in-person, not over unsecured phone lines or through email.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. Just to clarify, Ayesha, did you say this is a system that was set up explicitly for the Trump administration?
RASCOE: No. No. This system has been in place in prior administrations, but it's still in place because, obviously, systems can change. I just wanted to clarify that this is still in place during - for the Trump administration.
MARTIN: OK. So you've been talking with some former national security officials about what we now understand are the allegations in the whistleblower complaint. What are you hearing from them?
RASCOE: So they're saying that an action like this is really unheard of during their times in the NSC. Phone calls between the president and world leaders are typically classified. But they're not treated in this manner, which is reserved for, like, intelligence programs or tools the U.S. wouldn't want other countries to know about. I spoke with Michael Green, who worked at the NSC for about five years during the Bush administration. And he pointed out - this was after 9/11. And this is what he had to say about his experience with these calls.
MICHAEL GREEN: Even in that context, I had never heard or witnessed what we're seeing now, where a transcript was routed directly to the most sensitive, compartmented security clearances so that no one could see it.
RASCOE: And so because of that, he said he found these allegations pretty disturbing.
Ned Price worked at the NSC during the Obama administration. He said he never heard of anyone taking any actions like this during his time there. He pointed out that the idea that this information would need to be stored on a separate system is undercut because the administration released the unredacted notes on the call. So it doesn't appear to be classified information.
MARTIN: So, Ayesha, we still don't know the identity of the whistleblower. Neither does the president, but that's not stopping him from trying to undermine this person's credibility. What's he saying?
RASCOE: Yeah. At a private event in New York with U.S. diplomatic officials, President Trump really went after this whistleblower and anyone who might have talked to them. Here's what he had to say.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart - right? - the spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.
RASCOE: And so you have - it was - that's pretty dark...
MARTIN: It is.
RASCOE: ...Statement from the president. But this is what he's saying in the aftermath of this complaint coming out.
MARTIN: And we should also just underscore the fact that his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, testified under oath in front of Congress that the whistleblower has done everything right and has followed and abided by all U.S. laws. Ayesha Rascoe, thanks. We appreciate it.
RASCOE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: All right. Let's switch gears. We're going to focus now on Egypt...
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
MARTIN: ...Because that is the sound of the streets of Cairo, where anti-government protests have been taking place in recent days - protesters demanding that the president there, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, resign.
KING: The crackdown on these protests has been harsh, even by Egypt's standards, which are not great. A human rights group there says almost 2,000 people have been arrested since these protests started last weekend. And despite that, the guy who's leading the protests is calling for a million people to come out and march today.
MARTIN: Jared Malsin is a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and is in Cairo, joins us this morning. Jared, thanks for being here.
JARED MALSIN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Why are people so angry with the president?
MALSIN: Well, this is a regime where there's no real freedom of speech, where street protests are all but illegal, where this government has a well-documented record of torture and where, because of this government's economic policies, the standard of living has really declined over the last several years. And so, you know, the president, Sissi, has been facing some new allegations of corruption in recent days that have just sparked a lot of resentment that has been there under the surface for years.
MARTIN: One of the things that was so memorable about the revolution eight years ago was how much it was animated by social media. Is that happening again?
MALSIN: Yeah. This has a lot to do with social media in the sense that these protests were in response to a series of online videos that were posted by a man named Mohamed Ali, who identified himself as a contractor for the government, who was involved in building these massive construction projects that have been sort of the signature of this government's program over the last few years.
And among those projects were these lavish palaces for the president. And these allegations, you know, that the government is wasting public funds on these palaces while ordinary Egyptians are struggling to make ends meet, feed their families and dealing with increases in the prices of basic goods - that's really struck a chord with people. And these videos went viral. And it's become a real phenomenon in Egyptian social media. And it spilled into the street in the real world last week.
MARTIN: How big a threat is this to el-Sissi? Jared?
MALSIN: Hello? Yeah. Sorry.
MARTIN: How big a threat is this to his - to el-Sissi and his rule?
MALSIN: It's very hard to predict. But the government is behaving as if it's a crisis. As you mentioned, they've arrested more than 2,000 people over the last week, which is the largest single roundup of political opponents we've seen since Sissi came to power.
And so, you know, even in the context of a massive crackdown over the last few years, it's really striking to see that many people arrested. And it's very hard to say how this is all going to play out in the streets. So we have to see how many people show up to these protests today.
KING: Jared Malsin of The Wall Street Journal in Cairo. Thank you. We appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.