The whistleblower complaint submitted by an anonymous tipster in the intelligence community describes President Donald Trump’s efforts to use “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. elections.” It also leaves Congress with a number of unanswered questions as it pursues an impeachment inquiry.
Here are some of the questions Congress must answer:
Which White House officials were in on the call?
“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 complaint states.
These officials were sitting in the Situation Room on July 25, listening as Trump called Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky from the Oval Office.
The White House placed no restrictions on who could listen in on the call, according to the whistleblower, as “everyone expected it would be a ‘routine’ call with a foreign leader.” The whistleblower did not know if anyone was with the president in the Oval Office as he made the call.
Some of these officials were “deeply disturbed” by the phone call, according to the complaint. They told the whistleblower “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 only official who listened to the call that the whistleblower names is T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a State Department official.
Who were the “approximately a dozen White House officials” in the Situation Room listening to the call? And who, if anyone, was in the Oval Office with Trump as he spoke to Zelensky?
Which White House officials ordered the call transcript to be locked down and improperly classified? Which officials carried out the order?
White House lawyers “directed” other White House staff to “remove the electronic transcript” of the call from the normal computer system and load it “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,” the complaint states.
The system the transcript was uploaded to was “a standalone computer system for codeword-level intelligence information, such as covert action,” according to the whistleblower.
Who were the White House lawyers who directed staff to improperly classify the call transcript? And which staff moved the files from the proper computer system to the classified system?
What did former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats know, and when did he know it?
Dan Coats announced his resignation as director of national intelligence on July 28 and officially left his post on Aug. 15. The whistleblower complaint, dated Aug. 12, was presented to acting DNI Joseph Maguire on Aug. 16.
“Nothing came to me,” Coats said at an appearance before the Economic Club of Indiana on Thursday. “I left on Aug. 15. ... The very next day that was presented to Joe. I feel so bad for Joe. He is caught in a squeeze here and the lawyers are divided. So they are trying to work all that out. That’s about all I can say about that.”
It strains credulity to think Coats was unaware of the growing concern about Trump’s efforts to use the U.S. government to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation into his political rival.
The whistleblower heard deep concerns from “more than half a dozen U.S. officials” about the president’s behavior over the course of “four months,” beginning in May 2019. The named and anonymous officials mentioned in the complaint are all part of the national security and diplomatic establishments. They include ambassadors, intelligence officials, White House officials with clearance and high-ranking State Department officials.
“Multiple State Department and Intelligence Community officials were also briefed on the contents of the call,” the complaint states.
Regarding the movement of the July 25 call transcript to a classified server, the whistleblower writes: “Some officials voiced concerns internally that this would be an abuse of the system and was not consistent with the responsibilities of the Directorate for Intelligence Programs.”
It is hard to believe that these internal complaints did not reach Coats, as the highest ranking official in the intelligence community.
When did Coats become aware of Trump’s alleged improper use of his office? What did he do about it? Did he learn about the whistleblower complaint before resigning? And did this episode factor into his decision to resign when he did?
The same questions could be asked of Sue Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence, who resigned the same day as Coats because Trump did not want her to become the next DNI.
So far, Coats is not talking. “There’s much I can’t say,” he said on Thursday. “We’re in the secrets business. ... Obviously there are a number of things going on relative to that and you’ve been reading about it in the paper and there’s speculation.”
What was Attorney General William Barr’s involvement?
“Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well,” the whistleblower complaint notes.
The president pressured Zelensky to “meet or speak with two people the President named explicitly as his personal envoys on these matters, Mr. [Rudy] Giuliani and Attorney General Barr, to whom the President referred multiple times in tandem,” the complaint states.
The complaint notes that Barr launched a probe into the “origins” of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election at the behest of Trump in May. Part of Barr’s investigation apparently links to an unfounded conspiracy theory that CrowdStrike, the firm that initially investigated the hacking of the Democratic National Committee servers, forged the results blaming Russian intelligence. Part of this conspiracy involves a (once again unfounded) belief that the DNC servers are actually in Ukraine and contain Hillary Clinton’s missing 33,000 emails.
Trump pressed Zelensky on the July 25 call to help investigate CrowdStrike and said, according to the released summary of the call: “The server, they say Ukraine has it.” He asked Zelensky to talk to Barr about this.
Giuliani, the president’s non-governmental point person on pressuring Ukraine, was apparently steering ex-Ukrainian officials to speak to Barr. Yuriy Lutsenko, the country’s former prosecutor general and a Ukrainian politician aligned with former President Petro Poroshenko, was a source for Giuliani and Trump of numerous unverified (and later retracted) claims about Ukrainian corruption investigations, including those into Biden.
Lutsenko said publicly in April that “he had spoken with Mr. Giuliani about arranging contact with Attorney General Barr.”
Giuliani also claimed that U.S. Attorney for Connecticut John Durham, who is leading Barr’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, was “spending a lot of time in Europe ... investigating Ukraine.”
What is Barr’s role here? Is he acting as the U.S. attorney general or as the president’s lawyer? Has Durham been spending a lot of time in Europe investigating Ukraine?
Did Ukrainian officials believe they needed to “play ball” with Trump?
“Multiple U.S. officials told me that the Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelensky would depend on whether Zelensky showed willingness to ‘play ball’ on the issues that had been publicly aired by Mr. Lutsenko and Mr. Giuliani,” the complaint states.
Later in the report, the whistleblower writes: “According to these officials, it was also ‘made clear’ to them that the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelensky until he saw how Zelensky ‘chose to act’ in office.”
The phrases “play ball” and “chose to act” refer to the opening of investigations into Biden and the 2016 Russian election interference that aided Trump.
“I do not know how this guidance was communicated, or by whom,” the whistleblower writes.
There are some hints as to where officials may have learned this information. During this period, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland “met with members” of Zelensky’s new administration.
The two U.S. diplomats “sought to help Ukrainian leaders understand and respond to the differing messages they were receiving from official U.S. channels on the one hand, and from Mr. Giuliani on the other,” according to the complaint.
What did these officials see or hear that led them to believe that Ukrainian officials thought they needed to acquiesce to Trump’s pressure campaign to get to meet or speak to the president? How was it “made clear”?
Did U.S. officials believe Ukraine feared losing military aid?
“As of August, I heard from U.S. officials that some Ukrainian officials were aware that U.S. aid might be in jeopardy, but I do not know how or when they learned of it,” the whistleblower writes.
The complaint details the potential use of approved military aid for Ukraine as part of Trump’s pressure campaign. It states that the Office of Management and Budget informed other agencies that the president “earlier that month” had suspended “all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.”
“Neither OMB nor the [National Security Council] staff knew why this instruction had been issued,” the complaint says.
First on July 23 and then again on July 26, the day after the call, OMB officials reiterated directions to suspend aid to Ukraine on the direct orders of the president. It is then that U.S. officials became aware of Ukraine’s fears of losing aid.
How did U.S. officials come to believe Ukraine feared losing military aid? And was a rationale for suspending aid to Ukraine ever provided?
Why did Mike Pence cancel his trip to Ukraine?
Vice President Mike Pence was supposed to attend Zelensky’s inauguration on May 20, but his appearance was canceled amid Trump’s pressure campaign against Ukraine. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry led the delegation instead. The whistleblower reported that the same U.S. officials who reported that Zelensky felt he had to “play ball” with Trump to obtain a meeting also informed him about Pence’s canceled trip.
This cancellation came amid a rapidly increasing pressure campaign against the new Ukrainian administration. The New York Times reported on May 9 that Giuliani was going to travel to Ukraine that month as part of the campaign. The president told Politico on May 10 that he planned to talk to Giuliani about the trip. Then later on May 10, Giuliani said he wasn’t going to Ukraine after all, because Zelensky “was surrounded by enemies of the [U.S.] President... and of the United States.”
Lutsenko, then Ukraine’s prosecutor general and a source for Trump and Giuliani’s conspiracies, met with Zelensky on May 11 to plead to keep his job. (He was ultimately replaced.)
The concerns within the national security community about Trump’s pressure campaign to get Ukraine to interfere in U.S. elections began at the same time Pence’s trip was canceled.
“Starting in mid-May, I heard from multiple U.S. officials that they were deeply concerned by what they view as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decisionmaking processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the President,” the whistleblower’s complaint states.
Why was Pence’s trip canceled? Was it part of the pressure campaign to get Zelensky to cooperate? Does Pence know why his trip was canceled, or was he kept out of the loop?
Why was U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch removed from office?
The State Department removed U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch from her post on May 6. This occurred just as Giuliani’s pressure campaign against the incoming Zelensky administration ramped up, and close to Pence’s canceled trip.
Yovanovitch was supposed to leave her Ukraine posting in the summer, but she was suddenly recalled on April 29 and reassigned with the State Department on May 6.
“Several U.S. officials told me that, in fact, her tour was curtailed because of pressure stemming from Mr. Lutsenko’s allegations,” the complaint states. “Mr. Giuliani subsequently stated in an interview with a Ukrainian journalist published on 14 May that Ambassador Yovanovitch was ‘removed... because she was part of the efforts against the President.’”
Giuliani’s campaign to remove Yovanovitch was apparently tied to a baseless conspiracy theory that she interfered with the 2016 U.S. elections by handing Lutsenko, then Ukraine’s prosecutor general, a “do not prosecute” list and “had blocked Ukrainian prosecutors from traveling to the United States expressly to prevent them from delivering their ‘evidence’ about the 2016 U.S. election,” according to the complaint.
Lutsenko recanted his allegation that Yovanovitch gave him a “do not prosecute” list on April 17. He admitted that he was the one who requested it.
Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news” in his July 25 call with Zelensky, according to the summary of the call, and said that “the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news.”
Why was Yovanovitch removed as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine right as Trump’s pressure campaign began?
Did the White House improperly file other call transcripts with foreign leaders on the classified server?
“This was ‘not the first time’ under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive ― rather than national security sensitive ― information,” the complaint states.
The use of the classified system for transcripts of calls with foreign leaders may have developed after transcripts of calls with the presidents of Mexico and Australia were leaked in early 2017, according to Politico.
Which other transcripts with foreign leaders were improperly classified?