Skip to main content
The South Portico porch steps of the White House are seen after a renovation in Washington, U.S., August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas - RC16122FF710
FixGov

Is Ukraine simply the tip of the iceberg for impeachment?

The thing about investigations is that you never know where they will lead. The decision to start an impeachment inquiry began with a phone call between President Trump and the president of the Ukraine. But where and with what country it will end is anyone’s guess.

That’s because, hidden in the appendix to the whistleblower report was the following explosive statement:

“According to White House officials I spoke with, this was “not the first time” under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive—rather than national security sensitive—information.”

What’s in the special codeword-level system that is supposed to be for the most sensitive national intelligence? We know that’s where Trump’s conversation with the Ukranian President was deep-sixed. What else is in there?

The Congress needs to see what’s in this system. Last night, Congressman Adam Schiff announced that he had issued “preservation orders.” Preservation orders are used in litigation to require an organization to preserve information that could be used in a legal proceeding. Schiff’s order is a warning not to tamper with evidence that may be used in the impeachment investigation.

The system in question is managed by the National Security Council’s Directorate for Intelligence. It exists to store “codeword-level” intelligence; for instance, intelligence about covert operations or about the movement of military assets. A small subset of the White House and a small subset of the national security community have access to this—hence the term “codeword-level.” Thus, it is surprising that a conversation with President Trump considered appropriate enough to release to the public would have been stored in such a secret place.

While all eyes are on the Ukraine story, the real story may come out of the contents of that system—eventually. Democrats and Republicans with Top Secret security clearances should be able to view its contents. If what they find are mostly highly sensitive records of covert operations, then the president may have an easier time convincing the Congress that he has not abused his power. But if they find other instances of secret communications with Ukraine or with other foreign governments that involve the personal political interests of the president, the case for impeachment may get much stronger.

The country whose communications are most likely to be hidden on that system is not Ukraine but Russia. The cloud of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign has floated over this administration from the beginning. But the Mueller investigation, thorough as it was, never touched Donald Trump himself—although there are significant questions about whether that would be the case if he were not president. His campaign manager went to jail as did some lesser and more remote aides. But suspicions about Trump have been kept alive by his foreign policy—a policy that has often been friendly to Russia—to the consternation of most of the foreign policy community regardless of political party.

Forty-five years ago, a young White House aide revealed the existence of a taping system in the Oval Office. Until then, the Watergate scandal had sent many of President Nixon’s aides to jail but had not touched Nixon himself. The tape in which Nixon instructs his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to tell the CIA to tell the FBI to shut down the Watergate investigation became the famous “smoking gun.” It ended Nixon’s presidency.

The contents of the White House’s codeword-level system could prove to be the smoking gun in this century’s impeachment.

Get daily updates from Brookings