President Trump told a crowd of staff from the United States Mission to the United Nations on Thursday morning that he wants to know who provided information to a whistle-blower about his phone call with the president of Ukraine, saying that whoever did so was “close to a spy” and that “in the old days,” spies were dealt with differently.
The remark stunned people in the audience, according to a person briefed on what took place, who had notes of what the president said. Mr. Trump made the statement several minutes into his remarks before the group of about 50 mission employees and their families at the event intended to honor the mission. At the outset, he condemned the former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s role in Ukraine at a time when his son Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Mr. Trump repeatedly referred to the whistle-blower and condemned the news media reporting on the complaint as “crooked.” He then said the whistle-blower never heard the call in question.
“I want to know who’s the person who gave the whistle-blower the information because that’s close to a spy,” Mr. Trump said. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
“Over the past four months, more than half a dozen U.S. officials have informed me of various facts related to this effort,” the complaint stated. It described concerns that the president was using his phone call with the Ukrainian president for personal gain to fulfill a political vendetta.
Some in the crowd laughed, the person briefed on what took place said. The event was closed to reporters, and during his remarks, the president called the news media “scum” in addition to labeling them crooked.
The ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Knight Craft, was in the room.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An intelligence whistle-blower law protects intelligence officials from reprisal — like losing their security clearance or being demoted or fired — as long as they follow a certain process for bringing allegations of wrongdoing to the attention of oversight authorities.
The whistle-blower followed that process — filing a complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community. The Trump Justice Department later proclaimed that the information the whistle-blower put forward did not qualify under the intelligence whistle-blower law, raising the question of whether the official was still protected from reprisal. The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has said he would not permit the official to suffer retaliation, but the inspector general has pointed out that this personal assurance is not a legal shield.
Moreover, whistle-blower laws are aimed at channeling complaints to certain officials with oversight responsibilities — Congress, supervisors or inspectors general — and do not protect officials who provide information to other people without authorization. For that reason, these laws almost certainly do not protect the officials who told the whistle-blower about the call in the first place.
Mr. Trump spoke as the director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was testifying before Congress that the president had never asked for the identity of the whistle-blower, whose complaint was initially withheld from Congress by the Trump administration.
At a fund-raiser at Cipriani 42nd Street in Manhattan immediately after the United Nations event, Mr. Trump walked out before the crowd of several hundred donors clutching paper in one of his hands and said, “This is the call.” He then said it was “the greatest thing” to happen to the Republican Party because they had raised so much money off the controversy.
In a Twitter post later in the day, Mr. Trump referred again to the whistle-blower having “second hand information” and called the inquiry “Another Witch Hunt!”