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Effort to shield Trump’s call with Ukrainian leader was part of broader secrecy effort

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/27/2019 Josh Dawsey, Carol Leonnig
a traffic light hanging off the side of a building: Clouds are seen over the White House at the South Portico on Thursday. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Clouds are seen over the White House at the South Portico on Thursday.

The White House has taken extraordinary steps over the past two years to block details of President Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders from becoming public, following embarrassing disclosures early in his administration that enraged the president and created a sense of paranoia among his top aides.

The number of aides allowed to listen on secure “drop” lines was slashed. The list of government officials who could review a memo of the call’s contents was culled. Fewer copies of transcripts went to agencies, and they were stamped with “EYES ONLY DO NOT COPY.” And some officials who deliver call memos had to sign for the records to create a custody record if they were to leak, according to people familiar with the moves who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them.

At one point in 2018, Defense Department officials were asked to send back transcripts of calls to the White House after Trump aides grew worried they could be disclosed, according to former senior administration officials. 

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But the issue has came roaring back to life this week after a whistleblower complaint led the White House to release a rough transcript of July 25 call between Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky that has drawn allegations that Trump abused his position by pressuring his counterpart to investigate his political rivals and kick-started an impeachment effort by House Democrats.

While Trump approved the release of the rough transcript this week to combat the whistleblower’s allegations, he has once again charged that people with access to his calls are conspiring against him.

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“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” Trump told attendees of a private event at the United Nations on Thursday, according to audio of his remarks posted by the Los Angeles Times and confirmed to The Washington Post by a person in attendance. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

According to a whistleblower complaint released Thursday, after the 30-minute call between the two presidents in which Trump encouraged an investigation into Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and asked Zelensky to work with Attorney General William P. Barr and Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, White House lawyers allegedly took unusual steps to keep the calls contents hidden.

The complaint said the transcript was “loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive level.” According to the whistleblower, “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.”

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Trump pauses to chat as he walks back to the Oval Office after sheriffs presented him with an appreciation plaque at the South Portico of the White House on Sept. 26  in Washington, D.C. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump pauses to chat as he walks back to the Oval Office after sheriffs presented him with an appreciation plaque at the South Portico of the White House on Sept. 26 in Washington, D.C.

The accusation of a coverup was another damning revelation in a tumultuous week for the White House. But the effort at secrecy surrounding the call was not surprising from the Trump White House, where the president often makes impolitic or inappropriate comments — and is also concerned with them becoming public and presses aides to ensure they do not, according to current and former administration officials.

“It’s President Trump. It’s like a stream of consciousness. That’s just the way he talks. I felt like I was in the room with him,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally, said of the rough transcript.

The July 25 call had roughly 12 to 13 people listening in. That included at least three people from the Situation Room, who took notes and coordinated the call; at least two or three members of the national security adviser’s leadership team; a State Department official who served as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surrogate; and a senior representative from the Russia and Ukraine directorate, according to the whistleblower’s complaint and a person familiar with the discussions.

Unlike some other calls with foreign leaders, the conversation with Zelensky was expected to be routine, the whistleblower said.

Once the call concluded and copies were distributed to top officials in the White House, lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office then directed that the document be moved to a code-word-protected secure computer network that is normally reserved for transcripts that contain national security secrets after officials raised concerns about Trump’s comments, according to the complaint.

The system where the transcript was allegedly stored is for highly classified information, such as covert operations, and can only be accessed with a code word and has to be approved by a senior White House official with a written record, according to current and former administration officials. The call with Zelensky did not contain any classified information, which was why the White House was able to release it this week.

To transfer a call from the normal storage system to the National Security Council’s code-word-protected network, a very senior White House official — someone as high as the chief of staff or the national security adviser — must make a formal written request to do so, according to two people who worked with memos of foreign leader calls.

a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a door: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prepares to speak Wednesday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prepares to speak Wednesday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Four former U.S. officials — including aides in previous administrations and the Trump administration — said they were not aware of any calls that did not contain highly classified information being housed in this type of storage system. One former Trump administration official said such calls were sometimes kept on the “high side,” only available to aides with high clearances and separate laptops, but not the secure system the whistleblower alleges was used. “Never heard of anything like that,” said this official, who was privy to some of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders.

There is no evidence that Trump ordered the move. But he has repeatedly fixated on disclosures to the news media, and his aides have spent considerable time trying to limit who hears his interactions with not only foreign leaders, but also lawmakers, friends and anyone else Trump consults with.

Then-national security adviser John Bolton, in the wake of embarrassing revelations about Trump congratulating Russian President Vladmir Putin on his electoral victory in March 2018 after receiving a memo from his staff that said “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” had dramatically cut back on the number of people who were allowed to listen in on Trump’s calls. The earlier leak of transcripts of calls Trump had with the leaders of Mexico and Australia had also embarrassed the White House.

The paranoia grew outside conversations with foreign leaders. Trump has held sensitive meetings with his lawyers in the residence and asks for many meetings to be kept off his schedule. When legislative leaders come to the White House for meetings with the president, they are usually only allowed to bring their chiefs of staff along — or sometimes no one, according to people familiar with the meetings.

At fundraisers, even donors and members of Congress now are forced to leave their phones outside in custom-made pouches so they cannot record the president, according to people who have attended the events. The rule was put in place last year, former aides said, after Trump’s remarks leaked. “I’d never had that happen before,” Doug Deason, a Trump donor, said in a 2018 interview. “The phones were all put in a pile outside.”

Large meetings in the Oval Office — a mainstay early in Trump’s presidency, where aides would hold gladiator-like policy fights — have been limited, current and former administration officials said.

Trump often asks aides who they think is leaking, in part to decide whom to trust and in part to scare them, current and former administration officials said. In late 2018, after news that a Trump aide referred to the late senator John McCain as “dying anyway,” Trump called aides into the Oval Office. He asked them to identify “leakers” in the White House. At one point, Kelly Sadler, the aide who made the comments, accused her boss, Mercedes Schlapp, of leaking. “You’re a liar!” Schlapp shouted in response.

Senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner has bragged to his father-in-law that he should trust him because “what I work on doesn’t leak,” according to a person who has heard the comments. Other aides scoff at that notion.

Aides know the easiest way to be fired from the West Wing is to be accused of leaking by colleagues. On Air Force One back to Washington after a rally last month, the president told advisers and guests that Bolton had leaked information and so needed to go, according to people familiar with his comments. Ironically, Bolton’s entrance to the administration came partially over the president’s furor over leaks that he privately blamed on people around Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster.

When Mick Mulvaney lobbied earlier this year for the job as chief of staff, he said one of his primary qualifications was that he would not leak information to the news media.

White House officials insisted this week there was no “leak hunt” for the whistleblower and that they — and the president — did not even know the person’s identity.

But Trump indicated Thursday that he wants to know the whistleblower’s sources inside the administration.

To deter leaking, Trump often attacks people who disclose information in harsh terms, as do his advisers. That dynamic was on display Thursday as Trump and his surrogates sought to disparage the whistleblower as a partisan and a liar.

“The whistleblower is a son of a b---h who lied about me,” Giuliani said in an interview Thursday.

joshua.dawsey@washpost.com

carol.leonnig@washpost.com

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