WASHINGTON >> There were dozens of ears listening to President Donald Trump’s 30-minute phone call with the leader of Ukraine that is at the center of a House impeachment inquiry, and as many eyes that saw what he said.
White House staffers, working in the secure, soundproof Situation Room in the West Wing basement, listened in and chronicled the conversation. National Security Council personnel edited a memo written about the call. White House lawyers, according to a government whistleblower, directed that the memo be uploaded into a highly restricted classified computer network. And there were the staffers whose keystrokes on a computer made that happen.
They represent a universe of people, little known outside their vital circle of national security officials, who can either support or disavow the whistleblower’s account. Their roles could well become more public as the impeachment investigation unfolds and Congress seeks additional witnesses.
Some staffers involved with the call still work at the White House; others have left. But what was thought to be a routine conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy turned into anything but that, when Trump asked him to investigate Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election and the activities of Democratic political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
30 MINUTES THAT CHANGED THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY
By the time staffers in the Situation Room got the president of Ukraine on the phone at 9:03 a.m., Trump had just finished firing off tweets claiming complete vindication from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony the day before about the Russia investigation. On the call, Trump was first to speak. He showered the 41-year-old Ukrainian, a novice politician and former comedian, with praise following his party’s victory in parliamentary elections. Zelenskiy chatted about how he wanted to “drain the swamp” in Kyiv and how he wished the European Union would provide more financial support. He told Trump that Ukraine was ready to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States.
The next 10 words that came out of Trump’s mouth — “I would like you to do us a favor, though” — are what triggered the House impeachment inquiry that has imperiled his presidency.
Trump asked Zelenskiy to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to look into Biden and his son, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump says it was an innocent, “perfect” call. But some White House staffers, worried that Trump seemed to be asking Ukraine for dirt on Biden, sounded alarms. They suggested the memorandum of the call — “telcon” for short — be transferred into a restricted server, usually reserved for documents about covert operations.
BEFORE THE CALL
This call, as well as others Trump has had with foreign leaders, was unusual in other ways, too. In past administrations, top foreign policy officials routinely briefed a president in person right before a call and provided written materials as well.
A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul worked at the NSC during the Obama administration and helped write briefs to prepare for dozens of calls with Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin.
“Judging from the content of the Trump-Zelenskiy call, Trump was not reading talking points,” McFaul said. “No one on our team ever would have prepared a call package prompting Obama to ask for a personal favor that would help him win reelection. I also doubt that Trump’s NSC staff would have written or cleared such a talking point for their boss.”
One individual with firsthand knowledge of how the Trump calls with foreign leaders are handled said the president “hates” such “pre-briefs” and frequently has refused to do them. Trump doesn’t like written background materials either, preferring to handle the calls himself, often in the morning from the residence. Occasionally, while on the phone with foreign heads of state, Trump has handed the receiver to his daughter, Ivanka Trump, so she can talk with the leader, according to this individual.
The person said a six-page pre-brief with attachments was once prepared for Trump before a call to a foreign leader. But that turned out to be too long, as did a single-page version. Preparing pre-brief note cards that offered about three talking points for Trump to make on a call was the norm, according to this person, who feared retribution for describing this process and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The individual said that when Trump is done with the note cards, he often rips them up and tosses them in a burn bag. Staff who handle records have had to retrieve the burn bags from the residence, put the papers out on a table and tape them back together to preserve them as official presidential records, this person said.
RUN OF THE MILL
Calls between a president and a foreign leader typically start with U.S. intelligence officers detailed to the White House gathering in the Situation Room, a process that has been in place for decades, according to two people familiar with the operation in the Trump White House and past administrations. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss how Trump’s calls with foreign heads of state are handled.
During the Ukraine call, several others listened in. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Keith Kellogg, national security adviser for Vice President Mike Pence, were on the call. It’s unclear if they were at the White House or listened in on “drop” lines, secure hookups top officials can use from outside the White House.
Others who typically would have listened in would have been the president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, or his deputy, Charles Kupperman, who have both left the White House; the NSC’s director of Russia and Europe, who currently is Tim Morrison; the NSC’s Ukraine expert; and possibly someone from White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s office.
Lawyers who handle NSC issues include John Eisenberg and his deputy, Michael Ellis. It’s unclear what, if any, role Ellis played, but the former counsel for the House Intelligence Committee has been in the spotlight before.
The New York Times reported in March 2017 that he allowed his former boss, the then-committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., to review classified material at the White House, seeking to bolster Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped during the 2016 campaign on the orders of the Obama administration. The intelligence reports consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about trying to develop contacts in the inner circle of then President-elect Trump. The report was not confirmed by The Associated Press.
The NSC declined to confirm who was on the call.
Down in the Situation Room, several others would have been listening. One person monitors the call to make sure the line is not interrupted. Others are tasked with documenting what is said. No audio recordings are made. The memorandum of the call, the telcon, which the White House has released, is the closest thing to a word-for-word transcript that is produced and is the official presidential record of the conversation.
“When I got to the Situation Room and my predecessor explained this incredibly inefficient process that we use, I had a lot of questions,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a 30-year U.S. intelligence veteran who managed the Situation Room during the Obama years. “I said ‘Why don’t we just record the call and write a transcript based on that?’”
Pfeiffer said his predecessor told him that the White House stopped taping presidential calls in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon recorded 3,700 hours of conversations, transcripts of which were used by Watergate investigators and during impeachment hearings that followed.
Pfeiffer said White House lawyers finally approved the idea of having a duty officer, wearing a headset, sit in a separate room, and repeat what was said on the call into voice-to-text software — again without creating any audio recording.
Individuals familiar with Trump White House procedure say one Situation Room staffer, using voice-to-text software, repeats each word the president says and another listens and repeats what the foreign leader says. The software turns the words they repeat into text and a rough draft of the telcon is produced.
That draft is given to subject matter specialists on the NSC, who edit the draft for accuracy. Each draft is separately preserved. After it’s finalized, it’s turned over to the national security adviser — Bolton, at the time — or the deputy, who was Kupperman, for their approval. White House lawyers also play a role in approving NSC documents.
After that, the telcon is given back to staffers tasked with preserving the document as a presidential record.
WHISTLEBLOWER SOUNDS OFF
Somewhere during this sequence, people privy to the call questioned whether Trump was pressuring the Ukrainian leader to investigate the Bidens. Trump has denied that he did and publicly released the telcon recounting what was said on the call.
He released it after a whistleblower, a CIA officer, filed a complaint about the call with the intelligence community’s inspector general. “In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to lock down” all records of the phone call, the whistleblower wrote. “This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”
The unidentified whistleblower — one of two who have come forward — said White House lawyers directed that the telcon be taken off a computer server where classified documents on foreign leader calls are normally kept. They directed it be transferred to a computer network with restricted access for documents about covert operations or other highly sensitive information. The telcon, which was classified as secret, did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.
One of the two people familiar with how foreign leader calls are handled in the Trump White House said putting a document classified only as “secret” into a server holding very highly classified information is not against any rule, but is a means of “leak prevention.”
That person also said it wasn’t common practice to put telcons into the more restrictive server, but that around the same time Bolton became national security adviser in the spring of 2018, it became standard not to share the telcons with the State Department, the national intelligence director and the Pentagon.
Those officials were told that if they wanted to see them, they could read them the next time they were at the White House, the individual said.