WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump lashed out Thursday at the person who gave information to a whistleblower who has accused the president of abusing the nation’s highest office for political gain, saying that individual is “close to a spy” who could have committed treason — an act punishable by death.
Trump’s comments led several Democratic House committee chairmen to warn the president against “witness intimidation.”
Dogged by the legacy-defining threat of impeachment, Trump was addressing American diplomats and their families, including children, at a private event for staff of the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York when he lashed out at those who helped his accuser.
Trump noted that the whistleblower had no first-hand knowledge of alleged abuse of office by the president.
“Who’s the person that gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to spy,” Trump said. “You know what we used to do in the old days, when we were smart, right? The spies and treason? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
The Los Angeles Times obtained and released a recording of the president’s comments.
In a formal complaint filed with the intelligence community’s inspector general, the whistleblower said “I was not a direct witness to most of the events described” but had received information over the past four months from multiple U.S. government officials alleging that Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
The whistleblower found the accounts by colleagues to be credible because “in almost all cases, multiple officials recounted fact patterns that were consistent with one another.”
The allegations stem from a July telephone conversation in which Trump urged Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to help investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Trump maintains the conversation was “absolutely perfect” and says he did nothing wrong.
Meeting with Trump on Wednesday in New York, Zelenskiy said “nobody pushed me” during what he said was a “normal” conversation with Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., yielded Tuesday to mounting pressure from her caucus and announced the launch of an impeachment inquiry against Trump. She cited alarm over reports that Trump had turned to a foreign country for political assistance, along with the administration’s refusal to send the complaint to Congress, as expected by law.
The White House on Wednesday released a rough transcript of the Trump-Zelenskiy conversation, the same day the whistleblower’s complaint was sent to Congress. The House Intelligence Committee released a redacted version of the complaint Thursday.
Trump’s comments Thursday at the New York event led the Democratic chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight committees to warn the president to temper his comments because they are seeking to hear from the whistleblower and other individuals referenced in the complaint.
“The president’s comments today constitute reprehensible witness intimidation and an attempt to obstruct Congress’ impeachment inquiry,” Reps. Eliot Engel of New York, Adam Schiff of California and Elijah Cummings of Maryland said in a joint statement. “Threats of violence from the leader of our country have a chilling effect on the entire whistleblower process, with grave consequences for our democracy and national security.”
According to a person familiar with the event, it was less of a typical “meet-and-greet” that presidents do when visiting American embassies abroad and had more of a campaign rally flavor with about 200 people, many of them political supporters of Trump.
The person said that while U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft was there, few rank-and-file staffers from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations attended.
This person and another familiar with the event said there was a band and a large number of Craft friends and family, including young children, who posed for selfies with Trump. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private event.
Former State Department and other officials who have participated in events similar to Thursday’s also condemned Trump’s remarks. They urged lawmakers from both political parties to do the same.
“The president of the United States threatened potential charges of treason and execution to those who would dare report abuses of power,” the statement said. “An American leader issuing such threats in front of public servants, not to mention their young children, is a dangerous and damaging development for our country. Such a statement is not only illegal, it is immoral.”
The White House had no comment.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.