President Donald Trump speaks on the phone at the White House Oval Office in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong Getty Images News | Getty Images
There were dozens of ears listening to President Donald Trump's speech 30-minute phone call with the leader of Ukraine who is at the center of a House impeachment inquiry, and so many eyes that saw what he said.
White House staff working in the safe and soundproof room in the west wing basement, listened and narrated the conversation. National Security Council staff has issued a report written memo about the call. White House lawyers, according to one government whistleblower, ordered the memo to be loaded on a highly restricted classified computer network. And there were the employees whose keystrokes on the computer made it happen.
They represent a universe of people, little known outside their vital circle of national security officials, who can support or deny the whistleblower's account. Their roles may become more public as the impeachment investigation proceeds and Congress seeks additional witnesses.
Some employees involved in the call still work at the White House; others left. But what was thought to be a routine conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy turned into everything except 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
When Situation Room staff called the President of Ukraine at 9:03 am, Trump had just fired tweets, claiming a full justification of the testimony of former Special Attorney Robert Mueller's congress the day before about the Russian investigation. In the call, Trump was the first to speak. He praised the 41-year-old Ukrainian, a fledgling politician and former comedian, with praise after his party's victory in parliamentary elections. Zelenskiy talked about how he wanted to "drain the swamp" in Kiev and how he wanted the European Union to provide more financial support. He told Trump that Ukraine was ready to buy more US anti-dart missile missiles.
The next 10 words that came out of Trump's mouth – "I would like you to do us a favor" – were what triggered the House impeachment inquiry that put his presidency at risk.
Trump asked Zelenskiy to work with Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to investigate Biden and his son, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump says it was an innocent and "perfect" call. But some White House officials, concerned that Trump appeared to be asking for land from Ukraine in Biden, sounded alarms. They suggested that the call memo – "telcon" – be transferred to a restricted server, usually reserved for documents about covert operations.
Before the call
This connection, as well as others that Trump had with foreign leaders, was also unusual in other ways. In previous administrations, senior foreign policy officials routinely briefed a president personally before a call and provided written materials.
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul worked at the NSC during the Obama administration and helped write summaries to prepare for dozens of phone calls with Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin.
"Judging by the contents of the Trump-Zelenskiy call, Trump was not reading discussion points," McFaul said. "No one on our team would ever have prepared a package of calls leading Obama to ask a personal favor that would help him win reelection. I also doubt that Trump's NSC team has written or clarified such a talk for his boss."
An individual with firsthand knowledge of how Trump's call to foreign leaders is treated said the president "hates" these "pre-briefs" and often refuses to follow them. Trump also dislikes written materials, preferring to handle calls often in the morning from the residence. Occasionally, while on the phone with foreign heads of state, Trump hands over the receiver to his daughter, Ivanka Trump, so she can talk to the leader, according to this individual.
The person said a six-page pre-brief with attachments had already been prepared for Trump before a call to a foreign leader. But it turned out to be very long, just like a single page version. Preparing pre-brief cards that offered about three discussion points for Trump to make a call was the norm, according to this person, who feared being reciprocated for describing this process and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The guy said that when Trump finishes the note cards, he rips them and throws them into a burn bag. Officials handling the records had to retrieve the burned bags from the residence, put the papers on a table and hold them together to preserve them as official presidential records, this person said.
Liaisons between a president and a foreign leader often begin with detailed US intelligence officials at the White House meeting in the Situation Room, a process that has been in place for decades, according to two people familiar with the Trump White House operation. in the past. administrations. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss how Trump's ties to foreign heads of state are handled.
During the call in Ukraine, several others listened. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Keith Kellogg, National Security Adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, were on the call. It is unclear whether they were in the White House or heard the drop, secure connections that senior officials can use from outside the White House.
Others who would normally have listened would be the president's national security adviser, John Bolton, or his deputy, Charles Kupperman, who left the White House; the director of the NSC in Russia and Europe, who is currently Tim Morrison; the NSC specialist in Ukraine; and possibly someone from the office of White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
Lawyers dealing with NSC issues include John Eisenberg and his deputy Michael Ellis. It is unclear what role Ellis played, if any, but the former House Intelligence Committee lawyer has been featured before.
The New York Times reported in March 2017 that it allowed its former chief, then-chairman of the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California., To review White House classified material, seeking to reinforce Trump's claim that he was heard during the 2016 campaign by order of the Obama administration. The intelligence reports consisted mainly 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 listened. One person monitors the call to ensure that the line is not interrupted. Others have the task of documenting what is said. No audio recording is made. The call memo, telcon, which the White House released, is the closest to a word-for-word transcript produced and is the official presidential record of the conversation.
"When I arrived at the Situation Room and my predecessor explained this incredibly inefficient process we use, I had a lot of questions," said Larry Pfeiffer, a 30-year-old US intelligence veteran who ran the Situation Room during the Obama years. "I said," Why don't we 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 talk, transcripts used by Watergate investigators, and during the impeachment hearings that followed.
Pfeiffer said White House lawyers finally approved the idea of having a service officer wearing a headset sitting in a separate room and repeating what was said in the call to voice-to-text software – again without creating any. audio recording.
Individuals familiar with the Trump White House procedure say that a Situation Room employee using voice-to-text software repeats every word the president says and another listens and repeats what the foreign leader says. The software transforms the words they repeat into text and a draft of the telcon is produced.
This draft is delivered to NSC experts who edit the draft for greater accuracy. Each draft is preserved separately. Once finalized, it is handed over to the national security adviser – Bolton at the time – or the deputy, who was Kupperman, for approval. White House lawyers also play a role in approving NSC documents.
After that, the telcon is returned to the officials charged with preserving the document as a presidential record.
The whistleblower sounds
Somewhere during this sequence, people who were aware of the question wondered if Trump was pressuring the Ukrainian leader to investigate the Bidens. Trump denied that he publicly disclosed the telcon telling what was said on the call.
He released it after a whistleblower, a CIA officer, filed a complaint about the liaison with the intelligence community inspector general. "In the days following the call, I learned from several US authorities that senior White House officials stepped in to block" all records of the call, the complainant wrote. "This set of actions emphasized to me that White House officials understood the seriousness of what happened on the call."
The unidentified whistleblower – one of the two who came forward – said White House lawyers ordered the telcon to be removed from a computer server, where documents classified in calls by foreign leaders are usually kept. They directed the transfer to a computer network with restricted access to documents about …