There were apparently quite a few ears listening to President Donald Trump’s brief but meaningful conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart on 25 July, and no fewer eyes staring at the later compiled, so-called “telcon”, or call transcript, according to a fresh AP report.
Intelligence staffers working in the soundproof Situation Room in the West Wing basement listened and chronicled what they heard in Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky in a special file, as phone call recordings were abolished decades ago after the Watergate scandal that resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation.
National Security Council staffers, meanwhile, edited a memo of the call, which White House lawyers, as suggested by one whistleblower’s complaint, ordered be uploaded on a highly classified computer server.
While these people's names are not widely known, they may be revealed as the impeachment inquiry, blasted by Trump as an act serving political purposes and a new round of “witch hunt garbage”, proceeds, with Congress searching for additional witnesses in the matter.
What’s in the Call?
The phone call appeared to go on smoothly for most of its 30 minutes, with Trump, who had a day before the call celebrated full vindication in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe, first congratulating Volodymyr Zelensky with his party’s win in Ukraine's parliamentary elections, while the latter reiterated his intention to “drain the swamp” in Kiev, expressing hope for more support from the European Union.
After Zelensky brought up the acquisition of more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States, there followed the ten controversial words that appeared to land in the Democrats’ crosshairs, and likewise, as follows from recent Washington Post and AP reports, the names of some of the White House staffers in attendance.
“I would like you to do us a favour, though”, Trump butted in, proceeding to ask Zelensky to cooperate with his 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.
At that point, many recalled that then-Vice President Joe Biden, while on a visit to the crisis-stricken Ukraine, called for the sacking of the country's prosecutor general, who, incidentally, was investigating at the time the top management of Cyprus-based Burisma Holdings, which employed the former VP's son.
How the Trumps Handle Foreign Calls
The July call was extraordinary not only due to the content and wording itself, but also the underlying protocol in comparison with the way it went. For instance, according to a former US envoy to Russia Michael McFaul, who worked at the NSC under Obama, “judging from the content of the Trump-Zelensky call, Trump was not reading talking points”, with the latter being obligatorily prepared by administration staffers ahead of chats with foreign leaders.
Separately, one AP-cited individual with first-hand knowledge of how Trump calls are handled noted that the POTUS “hates” both talking points and “pre-briefs”. He isn’t very fond of pre-written background data either, preferring to make calls himself and opt for words that he finds appropriate.
The individual continued to reveal that from time to time, while chatting with foreign counterparts, Trump has handed the telephone to his daughter and senior White House aide Ivanka, for her to continue the talk. He went on to detail how Trump sometimes opts to cover the stated talking points, saying that when he is done, he often rips them up and discards them in a burn bag, while staff responsible for preserving official presidential records must retrieve the papers from the dustbin.
‘Grave’ Content or ‘Leak Prevention’?
Regarding the July call, a question arises: was the transcript of the call rightfully and according to conventional procedure, or as a cover-up measure, uploaded on a super-secret server? According to one unidentified whistleblower, senior White House officials intervened to “lock down” all records due to their alleged “gravity” and focus on a covert operation, while the telcon, classified as a secret, appeared to not contain anything that had to do with national security, according to the same whistleblower’s account.
One of the two people familiar with how foreign calls are handled in the Trump White House said that 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”.
No Threat of Aid Withdrawal
Amid the ongoing impeachment inquiry, a memo of the call, reportedly authored by the whistleblower, notes that there was no mention of security assistance or the threat of military funds being pulled in the phone call - the key argument used by Democrats to launch their formal proceedings.
They accused President Trump of threatening to cut aid to Ukraine (which POTUS actually did in May) if Kiev doesn’t provide assistance in investigating current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden.
Trump denies wrongdoing and accuses House Democrats of persisting with a purely political campaign against him, calling the inquiry “a kangaroo court” that he will never cooperate with, lauding the “perfect” exchange he had with Zelensky. The latter, in his turn, has argued that no was implied pressure in Trump’s words.