The decade's most triggering comedy
While many Democrats have been calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment since before he even took office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), after struggling for months to rein in the more radical members of her party, initiated a formal impeachment inquiry into the president this week. The document ultimately responsible for pushing the Democrats’ impeachment campaign to the next level was a complaint filed by a whistleblower about a July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky in which Trump encouraged his Ukrainian counterpart to “look into” corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
With the firestorm over the call raging, President Trump agreed to release both the partial transcript of the call (released Wednesday) and the full complaint (released Thursday), allowing the public to read for themselves what was alleged and what had actually taken place. After the administration announced that it would release the complaint, an administration official told reporters that the intelligence community inspector general found the whistleblower had “political bias” in favor of “a rival candidate” of the president, Fox News reported.
As documented in the transcript, Trump did ask Zelensky to “look into” Biden and his son, though the administration underscores that no direct quid pro quo was offered by the president, as initially alleged by critics. Trump continues to maintain that he handled the call “perfectly” and that the media has over-hyped the claims.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump told Zelesky on the July 25 call. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
Before mentioning the Bidens, Trump brought up the cybersecurity company Crowdstrike, which was contacted by the Democratic National Committee after it noticed activity it suspected to be hacking. The company concluded that two hacking groups connected to Russia had infiltrated the DNC’s network.
“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it,” said Trump. Trump then said his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr would contact the Ukraine to “get to the bottom of it.”
In the complaint that prompted the flood of reports and impeachment inquiry, the whistleblower describes the call as the president “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The Department of Justice said in a statement Tuesday that after reviewing the complaint, the Department’s Criminal Division “reviewed the official record of the call and determined, based on the facts and applicable law, that there was no campaign finance violation and that no further action was warranted.”
Below is the full text of the introduction to the released whistleblower complaint and the first two sections of allegations related to the content of the call and alleged attempts to “restrict access” to it (formatting adjusted):
Dear Chairman Burr and Chairman Schiff:
I am reporting an “urgent concern” in accordance with the procedures outlined in 50 U.S.C. §3033(k)(5)(A). This letter is UNCLASSIFIED when separated from the attachment.
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 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals. The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.
• Over the past four months, more than half a dozen U.S. officials have informed me of various facts related to this effort. The information provided herein was relayed to me in the course of official interagency business. It is routine for U.S. officials with responsibility for a particular regional or functional portfolio to share such information with one another in order to inform policymaking and analysis.
• I was not a direct witness to most of the events described. However, I found my colleagues’ accounts of these events to be credible because, in almost all cases, multiple officials recounted fact patterns that were consistent with one another. In addition, a variety of information consistent with these private accounts has been reported publicly.
I am deeply concerned that the actions described below constitute “a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, or violation of law or Executive Order” that “does not include differences of opinions concerning public policy matters,” consistent with the definition of an “urgent concern” in 50 U.S.C. §3033(k)(5)(G). I am therefore fulfilling my duty to report this information through proper legal channels, to the relevant authorities.
• I am also concerned that these actions pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. Government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections.
To the best of my knowledge, the entirety of this statement is unclassified when separated from the classified enclosure. I have endeavored to apply the classification standards outlined in Executive Order (EO) 13526 and to separate out information that I know or have reason to believe is classified for national security purposes. (1)
• If a classification is applied retroactively, I believe it is incumbent upon the classifying authority to explain why such a marking was applied, and to which specific information it pertains.
I. The 25 July Presidential phone call
Early in the morning of 25 July, the President spoke by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I do not know which side initiated the call. This was the first publicly acknowledged call between the two leaders since a brief congratulatory call after Mr. Zelenskyy won the presidency on 21 April.
Multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call informed me that, after an initial exchange of pleasantries, the President used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests. Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid. According to the White House officials who had direct knowledge of the call, the President pressured Mr. Zelenskyy to, inter alia:
• initiate or continue an investigation(2) into the activities of former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter Biden;
• assist in purportedly uncovering that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine, with a specific request that the Ukrainan leader locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and examined by the U.S. cyber security firm Crowdstrike(3), which initially reported that Russian hackers had penetrated the DNC’s networks in 2016; and
• meet or speak with two people the President named explicitly as his personal envoys on these matter, Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General Barr, to whom the President referred multiple times in tandem.
The President also praised Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Mr. Yuriy Lutsenko, and suggested that Mr. Zelenksyy might want to keep him in his position. (Note: Starting in March 2019, Mr. Lutsenko made a series of public allegations—many of which he later walked back—about the Biden family’s activities in Ukraine, Ukrainian officials’ purported involvement in the 2016 U.S. election, and the activities of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. See Part IV for additional context.)
The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call. They told me 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 Ukrainian side was the first to publicly acknowledge the phone call. On the evening of 25 July, a readout was posted on the website of the Ukrainian President that contained the following line (translation from original Russian-language readout):
• “Donald Trump expressed his conviction that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve Ukraine’s image and complete the investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.”
Aside from the above-mentioned “cases” purportedly dealing with the Biden family and the 2016 U.S. election, I was told by White House officials that no other “cases” were discussed.
Based on my understanding, there were approximately a dozen White House officials who listened to the call—a mixture of policy officials and duty officers in the White House Situation Room, as is customary. The officials I spoke with told me that participation in the call had not been restricted in advance because everyone expected it would be a “routine” call with a foreign leader. I do not know whether anyone was physically present with the President during the call.
• In addition to White House personnel, I was told that a State Department official, Mr. T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, also listened in on the call.
• I was not the only non-White House officials to receive a readout of the call. Based on my understanding, multiple State Department and Intelligence Community officials were also briefed on the contents of the call as outlined above.
II. Efforts to restrict access to records related to the call
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, especially the word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced—as is customary—by the White House Situation Room. This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.
• White House officials told me that they were “directed” by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to Cabinet-level officials.
• Instead, the transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature. One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.
I do not know whether similar measures were taken to restrict access to other records of the call, such as contemporaneous handwritten notes taken by those who listened in.
The whistleblower goes on to outline “ongoing concerns” about what allegedly took place over the next few weeks regarding the call, including U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker and Giuliani reaching out to Ukrainian officials about how to “navigate” Trump’s “demands.” Read the full complaint here.