WASHINGTON — No one bothered to put special limits on the number of people allowed to sit in the “listening room” in the White House 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 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 Mr. 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 whistle-blower complaint released on 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 Mr. 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 expose him.
“The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call,” the whistle-blower, a C.I.A. 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 Zelensky of Ukraine, who himself told reporters in New York on Wednesday that he did not feel like he was being pushed.
But while the White House disparaged the whistle-blower’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 on 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Zelensky 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, Mr. Trump then segued directly to his request for help in his own domestic politics.
Mr. Trump at the White House on July 25, the day he spoke to the president of Ukraine.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
“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 Joseph R. Biden Jr. 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,” Mr. 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 delicate in terms of national security information.
The actions were unusual in a normal national security process but not unheard-of in Mr. Trump’s administration. Since early in his tenure, when transcripts of his telephone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia leaked, Mr. 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 V. Putin of Russia after taking office, Mr. Trump took his interpreter’s notes and ordered him not to disclose what he heard to anyone.
The specifics of Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky 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, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, had been vigorously lobbying Ukrainian officials to investigate Democrats over the 2016 election and Mr. Biden’s dealings with the country.
Starting in mid-May, the whistle-blower wrote, he began hearing from other American officials “that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decision making processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between” Kiev and the president.
Other people close to the situation have said that among those angry at Mr. Giuliani’s activities was John R. Bolton, who at the time was the president’s national security adviser. He left the administration this month amid disagreements with Mr. Trump over Russia as well as other issues.
But State Department officials, including Kurt D. 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 Mr. Giuliani’s campaign, according to the complaint.
The Ukrainians, it added, were led to believe that arranging a meeting or phone call between their president and Mr. Trump would depend on whether Mr. Zelensky showed willingness to “play ball” on Mr. Giuliani’s wishes. Indeed, it said, Mr. Trump ordered Vice President Mike Pence to cancel plans to travel to Ukraine for Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration on May 20.
As Mr. Giuliani continued to seek action by the Ukrainians, the White House Office of Management and Budget informed national security agencies on 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.
Trump’s Efforts to Push Ukraine Toward a Biden Inquiry: A Timeline
A guide to the key figures and dates as President Trump and his allies pressured Ukraine to investigate his political opponents.
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, Mr. Giuliani had breakfast with Mr. Volker about connecting with Ukrainian officials to seek information about the president’s Democratic opponents.
“Mr. Mayor — really enjoyed breakfast this morning,” Mr. Volker wrote in a text later that day that Mr. Giuliani posted on Twitter on Thursday. Mr. Volker offered to connect Mr. Giuliani with Andriy Yermak, an aide to Mr. Zelensky, according to the text.
Six days later came the phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky. 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, Mr. Volker and Mr. Sondland visited Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and met with Mr. Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials, offering them guidance on how to respond to Mr. Trump’s demands. Mr. Giuliani then met in Spain with Mr. Yermak on Aug. 2.
A week later, on Aug. 9, Mr. Trump publicly embraced Mr. Zelensky, telling reporters that he planned to invite the Ukrainian to the White House. “He’s a very reasonable guy,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Trump announced that Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, would be resigning.
The whistle-blower, employing an anonymous process, brought his concerns to the C.I.A.’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 on Aug. 12 with the office of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, a process that granted whistle-blower protections under law. The complaint was addressed to Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, 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 whistle-blower 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.
Mr. Atkinson forwarded the whistle-blower complaint on Aug. 26 to Joseph Maguire, who took over from Mr. Coats as the acting director of national intelligence, and declared that he had determined the complaint “appears credible.” Mr. 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, Mr. Bolton, then still the national security adviser, met with Mr. Zelensky in Kiev, the first personal visit by such a high-ranking member of the Trump administration since Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration. Mr. 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 Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky.
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 Mr. Bolton’s visit, and congressional aides were finally informed the next day.
As it happened, Mr. Trump canceled his trip to Warsaw to monitor Hurricane Dorian, which was bearing down on the East Coast. Instead, he sent Mr. Pence, who met with Mr. Zelensky.
Three House committees opened an inquiry on Sept. 9 to examine whether the aid to Ukraine was being held up for political reasons. On the same day, Mr. Atkinson, the inspector general, sent a letter to the intelligence panels informing them of the existence of the whistle-blower 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, Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, spoke to Mr. Trump about the matter and urged him to lift the freeze. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, 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.
Mr. Trump has since given conflicting explanations. First, he said he held it up because of concerns about corruption in Ukraine and cited Mr. 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 whistle-blower complaint, Mr. Schiff issued a subpoena the next day to Mr. Maguire. The Washington Post reported on Sept. 18 that the complaint involved Mr. Trump, and The Post and The New York Times reported the next day that it involved Ukraine.
Mr. Schiff said on 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.”
Mr. 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.”
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com