In a Routine Phone Call, Alarmed Aides Heard Trouble

A page of the declassified complaint filed by an intelligence officer about President Donald Trump’s interactions with the leader of Ukraine, released by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Sept. 26, 2019. (House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence via The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — No one bothered to put special limits on the number of people allowed to sit in the White House “listening room” to monitor the phone call because it was expected to be routine. By the time the call was over 30 minutes later, it quickly became clear that it was anything but.

Soon after President Donald Trump put the phone down that summer day, the red flags began to go up. Rather than just one head of state offering another pro forma congratulations for recent elections, the call turned into a bid by Trump to press a Ukrainian leader in need of additional American aid to “do us a favor” and investigate Democrats.

The alarm among officials who heard the exchange led to an extraordinary effort to keep too many more people from learning about it. In the days to come, according to a whistleblower complaint released Thursday, White House officials embarked on a campaign to “lock down” the record of the call, removing it from the usual electronic file and hiding it away in a separate system normally used for classified information.

But word began to spread anyway, kicking off a succession of events that would eventually reveal details of the call to the public and has now put Trump at risk of being impeached by a Democrat-led House for abusing his power and betraying his office. The story of the past two months is one of a White House scrambling to keep secrets to protect a president willing to cross lines others would not, only to find the very government he frequently disparages exposing him.

“The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call,” the whistleblower, a CIA official who once worked at the White House, wrote in his complaint, which was declassified and made public by the House Intelligence Committee.

“They told me,” he added, “that there was already a ‘discussion ongoing’ with White House lawyers about how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials’ retelling, that they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain.”

The president and his Republican allies rejected that characterization, saying he made no quid-pro-quo demands of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, who himself told reporters in New York on Wednesday that he did not feel like he was being pushed.

Trump dismissed the complaint as part of “another Witch Hunt” against him and suggested the whistleblower was “close to a spy.”

But while the White House disparaged the whistleblower’s complaint as full of secondhand information and media-reported events, it did not directly deny the sequence of events as outlined.

Moreover, other officials amplified the narrative Thursday with details that were not in the complaint. For instance, they said, at one point an order was given to not distribute the reconstructed transcript of Trump’s call electronically, as would be typical. Instead, copies were printed out and hand-delivered to a select group.

During the call on the morning of July 25, Zelenskiy talked about how much Ukraine had come to depend on the United States to help in its grinding, five-year war with Russian-sponsored separatists in the eastern part of the country. Without missing a beat, Trump then segued directly to his request for help in his own domestic politics.

“I would like you to do us a favor, though,” he said. Ukraine, he said, should look into conspiracy theories about Democratic emails hacked during the 2016 election as well as the actions of former Vice President Joe Biden and his younger son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

“Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible,” Trump said.

While the president saw nothing wrong with his request, officials who heard it quickly worried that it would be problematic at best and set about finding ways to keep the conversation hidden.

The electronic version of the reconstructed transcript produced from notes and voice recognition software was removed from the computer system where such documents are typically stored for distribution to Cabinet-level officers, according to the complaint. Instead, it went into a classified system even though the call did not contain anything especially sensitive in terms of national security information.

The actions were unusual in a normal national security process but not unheard-of in Trump’s administration. Since early in his tenure, when transcripts of his telephone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia leaked, Trump has been sensitive to preventing such records from getting out.

He has proved particularly attuned to guarding the confidentiality of other conversations involving the former Soviet Union. After his first meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia after taking office, Trump took his interpreter’s notes and ordered him not to disclose what he heard to anyone.

The specifics of Trump’s call with Zelenskiy would be one thing by itself, but it came during a period of other events that provide a context. For months leading up to the call, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had been lobbying Ukrainian officials to investigate Democrats over the 2016 election and Biden’s dealings with the country.

Starting in mid-May, the whistleblower wrote, he began hearing from other American officials “that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decision making processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between” Kyiv and the president.

Other people close to the situation have said that among those angry at Giuliani’s activities was John Bolton, who at the time was the president’s national security adviser. He left the administration this month amid disagreements with Trump over Russia as well as other issues.

But State Department officials, including Kurt Volker, the special envoy for Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, were left to try to “contain the damage” by advising Ukrainians how to navigate Giuliani’s campaign, according to the complaint.

The Ukrainians, it added, were led to believe that arranging a meeting or phone call between Zelenskiy and Trump would depend on whether Zelenskiy showed willingness to “play ball” on Giuliani’s wishes. Indeed, it said, Trump ordered Vice President Mike Pence to cancel plans to travel to Ukraine for Zelenskiy’s inauguration May 20.

As Giuliani continued to seek action by the Ukrainians, the White House Office of Management and Budget informed national security agencies July 18 that the president had ordered the suspension of $391 million in American security aid to Ukraine. In the days that followed, officials said they were unaware of the reason for the freeze.

American help has been a vital tool for checking Russian aggression in Ukraine, with strong support in both parties. According to other officials, three rounds of interagency meetings were then held to try to “unstick” the blocked aid or at least figure out why it was being held up. When the White House still would not explain, some administration officials began enlisting staff members in the Senate to help.

The day after the agencies were notified about the aid freeze, Giuliani had breakfast with Volker about connecting with Ukrainian officials to seek information about the president’s Democratic opponents.

“Mr. Mayor — really enjoyed breakfast this morning,” Volker wrote in a text later that day that Giuliani posted on Twitter on Thursday. Volker offered to connect Giuliani with Andriy Yermak, an aide to Zelenskiy, according to the text.

Six days later came the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. The White House readout released to the news media afterward made no mention of the discussion about Democrats, but a Ukrainian statement alluded to it by saying they discussed the completion of “investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.”

The next day, according to the complaint, Volker and Sondland visited Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and met with Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials, offering them guidance on how to respond to Trump’s demands. Giuliani then met in Spain with Yermak on Aug. 2.

A week later, on Aug. 9, Trump publicly embraced Zelenskiy, telling reporters that he planned to invite the Ukrainian to the White House. “He’s a very reasonable guy,” Trump said. “He wants to see peace in Ukraine, and I think he will be coming very soon, actually.”

In fact, Ukrainian officials had been trying to lock down a date for such a meeting for months but kept getting put off by White House aides. At this point, Ukrainian officials have said, they still did not know that Trump had suspended American aid but they were hearing that it might be at risk.

All of this was taking place at a time of flux among key national security officials. Fiona Hill, the senior director for Europe at the National Security Council, was stepping down and had turned over her duties in July before the call. Three days after the call, Trump announced that Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, would be resigning.

The whistleblower, employing an anonymous process, brought his concerns to the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, according to multiple people familiar with the events. As she sought to determine whether a reasonable basis existed for the accusation, she shared the matter with White House and Justice Department officials, meaning that the same institution he was complaining about had advance notice of the issue.

Concerned that his allegations were not being taken seriously, he filed a formal complaint Aug. 12 with the office of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, a process that granted whistleblower protections under law. The complaint was addressed to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, with the understanding that, under the law, it would be provided to them.

“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election,” the whistleblower wrote.

He acknowledged that he “was not a direct witness to most of the events described” but said he had gathered it from multiple officials and was “deeply concerned” that the actions constituted a flagrant abuse or violation of law.

Ten days later, Senate staff members sought an explanation for the aid freeze during a briefing by State and Defense Department officials but received no further information. By this time, however, they had begun hearing reports that the delays might be tied to reports about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine.

Atkinson forwarded the whistleblower complaint Aug. 26 to Joseph Maguire, who took over from Coats as the acting director of national intelligence, and declared that he had determined the complaint “appears credible.” Maguire brought the issue to the White House rather than Congress, arguing that he was obliged to do so, a decision that drew sharp criticism from Democrats.

The next day, Aug. 27, Bolton, then still the national security adviser, met with Zelenskiy in Kyiv, the first personal visit by such a high-ranking member of the Trump administration since Zelenskiy’s inauguration. Bolton, who holds deeply skeptical views of Russia, assured the Ukrainians that the United States stood behind them. He also was preparing for what was expected to be a meeting a few days afterward in Warsaw between Trump and Zelenskiy.

Ukrainian officials have said the aid holdup was not discussed during this visit and that they only learned about it afterward. The first report of the frozen money appeared in Politico on Aug. 28, the day after Bolton’s visit and congressional aides were finally informed the next day.

As it happened, Trump canceled his trip to Warsaw to monitor Hurricane Dorian, which was bearing down on the East Coast. Instead, he sent Pence, who met with Zelenskiy.

Three House committees opened an inquiry Sept. 9 to examine whether the aid to Ukraine was being held up for political reasons. On the same day, Atkinson, the inspector general, sent a letter to the intelligence panels informing them of the existence of the whistleblower complaint but withholding details, including the subject.

Senators from both parties increased the pressure on the White House to release the frozen aid to Ukraine. On Sept. 11, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, spoke to Trump about the matter and urged him to lift the freeze. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the White House that he would support a Democratic amendment meant to penalize the White House to prod the funds loose.

Administration officials informed senators that night that the money would be released, and the decision was announced the next day without any explanation for why it had been held up in the first place.

Trump has since given conflicting explanations. First, he said he held it up because of concerns about corruption in Ukraine and cited Biden in particular. Then he shifted the rationale to say he blocked it because he thought European countries should shoulder more of the burden.

Angry at not being informed about the topic of the whistleblower complaint, Schiff issued a subpoena the next day to Maguire. The Washington Post reported on Sept. 18 that the complaint involved Trump, and The Post and The New York Times reported the next day that it involved Ukraine.

Schiff said Thursday that the whole episode had not been in the interest of the United States. “It is instead the most consequential form of tragedy,” he said, “for it forces us to confront the remedy the founders provided for such a flagrant abuse of office, impeachment.”

Maguire captured the unique nature of the episode that has begun unveiling itself for the public to see. “I believe that everything here in this matter,” he said, “is totally unprecedented.”

The New York Times.” data-reactid=”65″>This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company