The whistleblower complaint at the center of President Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal reveals that White House officials attempted to “lock down” key transcripts of a conversation with the Ukrainian president by putting them onto a codeword-protected system meant for highly classified information. Now, Fox News is working to normalize and defend the alleged cover-up.
On September 26, the whistleblower complaint that triggered revelations about Trump’s Ukraine scandal was declassified and publicly released, revealing that the whistleblower reported that Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The whistleblower also wrote that White House officials attempted to “lock down” records of Trump’s July 25 phone call by moving the transcript of his conversation with President Volodomyr Zelensky “onto a separate system meant for highly classified information.” The whistleblower claimed that “this set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”
On September 27, White House officials confirmed to CNN that attorneys for the National Security Council “did direct key documents be filed in a separate classified system,” an admission which “lends further credibility to the whistleblower complaint description of how the transcript with the Ukrainian president, among others, were kept out of wider circulation by using a system for highly sensitive documents.”
Experts have stressed the unusual nature and complexity of concealing transcripts by moving them to this secure computer system. According to The Washington Post, “a senior White House official — someone as high as the chief of staff or the national security adviser — must make a formal written request to do so.” The Wall Street Journal reported that the system the White House used is “the most tightly controlled of at least four different computer systems used by the National Security Council staff” and that it is “so secretive that even top White House national-security aides don’t have regular access.” More than 300 former national security professionals have signed a letter expressing concern over Trump’s apparent “unconscionable abuse of power."
In an interview with The Washington Post, former National Security Council senior director Ned Price discussed the gravity of this abuse of power. According to Price, this abuse of power means “officials leveraged infrastructure designed to protect our most sensitive secrets to protect the president himself":
The executive order that governs classified information specifically forbids classification in order to protect information that’s embarrassing or otherwise politically sensitive. This is something Congress would want to look at.
This system is highly regulated and protected with the most rigorous safeguards available. The introduction of any materials that don’t meet that very high threshold corrupts the integrity of that system. It’s now going to be under tremendous scrutiny, including by Congress.
This has the potential to make information that should be on the system more vulnerable and expose it to additional eyeballs and to additional risk, which has the potential to do tremendous harm.
Speaking with Politico, April Doss, who served as a top attorney at the National Security Agency, agreed that the move is “highly unusual.”
“It risks undermining a whole host of important national security activities,” she said, noting that “most if not all” officials who would need to have access to call readouts as part of carrying out their regular duties in advising on foreign affairs and implementing the administration’s policies “would not have access” to the codeword system.
Nevertheless, Fox News is working to downplay and defend Trump’s actions, insisting that Trump merely moved things “from one computer to another computer” and claiming that “there is a total logic behind it.”
On Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade said that “you could thoroughly understand the administration wanting to guard against interactions that are important for national security,” referencing previous leaks from the White House of phone conversations between Trump and foreign leaders. Co-host Ainsley Earhardt agreed that the president was likely concerned about leaks, and co-host Steve Doocy said the administration “started to tighten the security” around such records.
Minutes later, Kilmeade again referenced previous leaks, arguing that “if you are the president of the United States, after a while, if you’re trying to watch his back, you say, ‘Let’s password-protect it.’” Kilmeade concluded that “to me, there is a total logic behind it.”
In a softball interview with White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, Kilmeade asked, “How often did you secure transcripts of phone calls with world leaders in the past, that you know of?” Dodging the question, Gidley responded by asking “how in the world can it be a cover-up” if “we literally released the document.” Later in the interview, Gidley defended using the server because of “the leaks that have already come out,” adding that “people in this government are entrusted with secure, sensitive information that deal with the national security of this country, and they are putting it out in the public sphere?”
On “straight news” show Your World with Neil Cavuto, Fox correspondent John Roberts reported on “an allegation contained within the whistleblower complaint that the White House moved the transcript of the Zelensky phone call off of the typical computer system to a codeword security system,” but he added that “we’re getting a little bit of pushback as to whether that ever happened.” Roberts added that if it did happen, “it may be because … transcripts of telephone calls between the president” and other world leaders had been leaked in the past.
On her own “news”-side show, Fox News anchor Dana Perino reduced the alleged cover-up to simply “moving this transcript from one computer to another computer.”
On Tucker Carlson Tonight, guest Peter van Buren referenced the alleged cover-up by saying that the whistleblower “has chosen a set of ambiguous circumstances and made all sorts of accusations about computer systems and servers,” adding that “if that’s an extortion, they should never watch The Sopranos.” Fox host Tucker Carlson agreed that “it’s nonsense.”
On America’s Newsroom, Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge questioned the whistleblower’s understanding of national security procedures, saying that “on the allegation of a cover-up,” Fox sources claimed the whistleblower appeared to have “minimal understanding of these systems and the handling of presidential communications, which are among the most restricted.”
Later in the show, guest co-host Jon Scott repeated the same spin, asserting that “Herridge is saying that there is a misunderstanding of the way presidential phone calls are stored, and that is part of what people are accusing the White House of.” Guest Charles Hurt added that “he’s had a history of people leaking these phone calls, so it stands to reason that he would do that.”