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White House lawyers form focus of impeachment inquiry

Investigators have already summoned former national security adviser John Bolton to testify next week.

President Donald Trump (AP)
President Donald Trump (AP)

By Deb Riechmann, Associated Press

An impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump is focusing on two White House lawyers who are said to have moved a memo about a presidential phone call to a restricted computer system.

Investigators have already summoned former national security adviser John Bolton to testify next week and also wish to speak to John Eisenberg, the lead lawyer for the National Security Council (NSC), and Michael Ellis, a senior associate counsel to the president.

The impeachment inquiry is investigating Mr Trump’s call in which he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a “favour” – one that alarmed at least two White House staffers who listened in on the July 25 call.

Mr Trump asked Mr Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival, as the Trump administration held up millions of dollars in military aid for the Eastern European ally confronting Russian aggression.

The lawyers’ role is critical because two witnesses have suggested the NSC legal counsel — when told that Mr Trump asked a foreign leader for domestic political help — took the extraordinary step of shielding access to the transcript not because of its covert nature but rather its potential damage to the president.

Mr Trump himself has repeatedly stressed that he knew multiple people were listening in on the call, holding that out as proof that he never would have said anything inappropriate.

But the subsequent effort to lock down the rough transcript suggests some people in the White House viewed the president’s conversation as problematic.

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Former top national security adviser to Mr Trump, Tim Morrison (AP)

Tim Morrison, outgoing deputy assistant to the president who handled European and Russian affairs at the NSC, told impeachment investigators on Thursday that military aid to Ukraine was held up by Mr Trump’s demand for the ally to investigate Democrats and Joe Biden.

Mr Morrison testified that he was “not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” on the July 25 call, but said that after listening to what Mr Trump said, he “promptly asked the NSC legal adviser to review it”.

Lt Col Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert at the NSC, had the same reaction. He and Mr Morrison were both in the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing listening in on Mr Trump’s conversation with Mr Zelenskiy. Lt Col Vindman told impeachment investigators that he was alarmed by what he heard, grabbing his notes from the call and going to see Mr Eisenberg.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the US government’s support of Ukraine,” Lt Col Vindman said.

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Lt Col Alexander Vindman (AP)

Lt Col Vindman said Mr Eisenberg, who is known in and outside the White House as a meticulous, deliberate lawyer, suggested moving the document that recounted the call to a restricted computer server for highly classified materials, according to a person who is familiar with Lt Col Vindman’s testimony.

Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, has declined to discuss how the White House handles classified materials, but denies that moving the memo about the call into the highly restricted NICE server — which stands for NSC Intelligence Collaboration Environment — amounted to a cover-up.

“There’s only one reason people care about that, right? And it’s because they think there’s a cover-up,” he told reporters at a recent White House briefing.

He added: “There must have been something really, really duplicitous, something really under-handed about how they handled this document, because there must be a cover-up.”

Mr Mulvaney said if the administration had wanted to cover anything up, it would not have spoken to the Justice Department after the call to have them look at the transcript and would not have publicly released the memorandum of the conversation.

PA

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