WASHINGTON — At least four national security officials were so alarmed by the Trump administration’s attempts to pressure Ukraine for political purposes that they raised concerns with a White House lawyer both before and immediately after President Trump’s July 25 call with that country’s president, according to U.S. officials and other people familiar with the matter.
The nature and timing of the previously undisclosed discussions with National Security Council legal adviser John Eisenberg indicate that officials were delivering warnings through official White House channels earlier than previously understood - including before the call that precipitated a whistleblower complaint and the impeachment inquiry of the president.
At the time, the officials were unnerved by the removal in May of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; subsequent efforts by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to promote Ukraine-related conspiracies; as well as signals in meetings at the White House that Trump wanted the new government in Kiev to deliver material that might be politically damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Those concerns soared in the call’s aftermath, officials said. Within minutes, senior officials including national security adviser John Bolton were being pinged by subordinates about problems with what the president had said to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. Bolton and others scrambled to obtain a rough transcript that was already being ‘‘locked down’’ on a highly classified computer network.
‘‘When people were listening to this in real time there were significant concerns about what was going on - alarm bells were kind of ringing,’’ said one person familiar with the sequence of events inside the White House, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. ‘‘People were trying to figure out what to do, how to get a grasp on the situation.’’
It is unclear whether some or all of the officials who complained to Eisenberg are also the ones who later spoke to the whistleblower.
The accounts are sharply at odds with Trump’s depiction of the call as a ‘‘perfect’’ exchange in which he ‘‘did nothing wrong,’’ despite appearing to link U.S. support for Ukraine to that country’s willingness to investigate the family of the former vice president. On Thursday, Trump renewed his attacks on Twitter, describing the impeachment inquiry as a ‘‘Democrat Scam.’’
But new details about the sequence inside the White House suggest that concerns about the call and events leading up to it were profound even among Trump’s top advisers, including Bolton and then-acting deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman. Bolton and Kupperman did not respond to requests for comment.
Officials said that within hours of the 9 a.m. conversation, a rough transcript compiled by aides had been moved from a widely shared White House computer network to one normally reserved for highly classified intelligence operations. According to the whistleblower’s complaint, White House lawyers ‘‘directed’’ officials to move the transcript to the classified system. At the same time, officials were seeking ways to report what they had witnessed, an undertaking complicated by the lack of a White House equivalent to the inspector general positions found at other agencies.
As a result, one official who had listened on the call went ‘‘immediately’’ to Eisenberg. By the end of the next day, at least two others who had either heard the call or seen the rough transcript had also done so, said a person familiar with the matter.
It is not clear whether Eisenberg took any action either after the warnings he received earlier in July or after the Trump-Zelensky conversation. One official said Eisenberg vowed he would ‘‘follow-up,’’ a message interpreted to mean that he intended to investigate the matter and perhaps relay the dismay up the ranks to White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
If that occurred, it would help to explain how the White House was already aware of concerns about the July 25 call when contacted by the CIA general counsel weeks before a whistleblower complaint submitted by an agency employee had become public.
White House officials did not respond to questions about Eisenberg or a request for comment.
A former Justice Department official, Eisenberg has served as the top legal adviser to the National Security Council since the start of the administration, a tenure that encompasses numerous legal crises, including the FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Eisenberg likely would also have played a leading role in the White House efforts to prevent the nation’s intelligence director from turning over a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s Ukraine call to lawmakers.
Officials who have worked with Eisenberg described him as conscientious and cautious, but said he has an expansive view of executive-branch authorities. One former Justice Department colleague said he is an ‘‘honest broker’’ but has a ‘‘disdain’’ for Congress.
Cipollone delivered a blistering letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week, describing the impeachment probe as ‘‘unconstitutional’’ and vowing that the administration would not cooperate.
The absence of any clear action by Eisenberg or others may have contributed to decisions by White House insiders to relay their concerns to a CIA employee who assembled the information they supplied into a whistleblower complaint that he submitted Aug. 12 to the U.S. intelligence community’s inspector general.
A memo turned over to congressional investigators suggests that the whistleblower, who has not been publicly identified, was contacted by a White House official on the afternoon of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky conversation. The complaint lays out many of the concerns that White House officials had shared with Eisenberg and others in the weeks leading up to that phone call.
Those involved in sounding alarms ‘‘were not a swamp, not a deep state,’’ said a former senior official. Rather, they were White House officials ‘‘who got concerned about this because this is not the way they want to see the government run.’’
Officials traced the origins of their initial concerns about Trump and Ukraine to the abrupt and unexplained removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, after she became the target of a right-wing smear campaign that accused her - with no apparent evidence - of undermining Trump and his policies.
NSC officials were alternately baffled and alarmed by the behavior of Giuliani, who had agitated for Yovanovitch’s removal and proceeded to declare on cable television interviews that he was pressing Ukraine to reopen a corruption probe of an energy company that had paid Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, as much as $100,000 a month to serve as a board member.
Biden has been criticized for taking that position while his father was serving as vice president and involved in Ukraine policy. But the younger Biden has never been accused of wrongdoing in his role as a board member for the company, Burisma, and there is no evidence to support the contentions by Giuliani and others that Joe Biden intervened inappropriately.
In his frequent meetings and conversations with Giuliani, Trump also became increasingly focused on Kiev-centered conspiracies, including a bizarre claim that the Democratic National Committee had not actually been hacked by Russian intelligence in 2016, and that the evidence - the infected machines - had been smuggled to Ukraine and kept there in hiding.
Concerns about the administration’s interactions with Ukraine ticked up further when the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, asserted that he had been put in charge of relations with Kiev by the president. Sondland, who had operated a hotel company, got the Brussels-based ambassadorship after donating $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
Sondland’s agenda in Ukraine began to become clear during a meeting at the White House in early July with Bolton, then-U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker and a pair of advisers to Ukraine’s new president.
Amid a broader discussion in which White House officials were encouraging Ukraine to continue its work to eliminate corruption in the country’s energy sector, Sondland blurted out that there were also ‘‘investigations that were dropped that need to be started up again,’’ according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.
Senior officials understood Sondland’s statement to be a reference to Burisma and Biden. ‘‘Bolton went ballistic’’ after the meeting, the official said. In the ensuing days, senior NSC officials including Bolton and Kupperman huddled over their concerns about Ukraine.
Those worries were also shared with Bill Taylor, who had been dispatched to Ukraine to serve as acting U.S. ambassador after Yovanovitch’s removal. Taylor pressed Sondland in a series of text messages before and after Trump’s call.
‘‘President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,’’ Taylor wrote to Sondland in the days leading up to the call. Weeks later, Taylor’s tone grew more alarmed.
‘‘As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,’’ he wrote to Sondland.
Sondland backed out of a scheduled appearance before House impeachment investigators this week after being ordered not to participate by the administration. Hearings with other officials, however, appear to remain on track. Yovanovitch is scheduled to testify Friday, and Fiona Hill, who served as the top White House aide on Russia, is due to meet with congressional investigators Monday.