WASHINGTON - Moments after President Trump ended his phone call with Ukraine’s president on July 25, an unsettled national security aide rushed to the office of White House lawyer John Eisenberg.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine adviser at the White House, had been listening to the call and was disturbed by the pressure Trump had applied to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rivals, according to people familiar with Vindman’s testimony to lawmakers this week.
Vindman told Eisenberg, the White House’s legal adviser on national security issues, that what the president did was wrong, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, Eisenberg proposed a step that other officials have said is at odds with long-standing White House protocol: moving a transcript of the call to a highly classified server and restricting access to it, according to two people familiar with Vindman’s account.
The details of how the White House clamped down on information about the controversial call comes as the House impeachment inquiry turns its focus to the role of Eisenberg, who has served as deputy White House counsel since the start of Trump’s administration. House impeachment investigators on Wednesday evening announced they have asked Eisenberg and a fellow White House lawyer, Mike Ellis, to testify Monday.
On Thursday, the House is scheduled to vote on rules governing the next phase of the inquiry and hear from Tim Morrison, a former deputy to national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton has also been asked to testify next week.
Vindman’s account marks the first known instance in which a witness before the impeachment inquiry has provided a firsthand account linking Eisenberg to the decision to move the problematic transcript to a highly classified server.
Eisenberg did not respond to requests for comment. A White House spokesman declined to discuss Eisenberg’s role in handling the July 25 transcript or how he addressed the concerns he heard from staff.
‘‘Consistent with the practices of past administrations from both parties, we will not discuss the internal deliberations of the White House Counsel’s Office,’’ said deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley.
Eisenberg, who worked in the Washington office of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis before joining the Trump administration, also served in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration. He has been deputy White House counsel overseeing national security issues since Trump’s inauguration, serving under both former White House counsel Donald McGahn and his successor, Pat Cipollone.
By the time Vindman came to him in late July, Eisenberg was already familiar with concerns among White House officials about the administration’s attempts to pressure Ukraine for political purposes, as The Washington Post previously reported.
Three weeks earlier, Vindman and another senior official had gone to him after a contentious July 10 meeting in which they said European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland had pushed two Ukrainian officials to investigate Trump’s political rivals, including former vice president Joe Biden, whose son Hunter served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
Sondland’s attorney, Robert Luskin, said Wednesday that his client did not mention the Bidens in the July 10 meeting or any other discussions about Ukraine policy.
‘‘Ambassador Sondland has nothing to add to his prepared testimony in which he makes clear that he did not then or on any other occasion mention any Biden by name and did not then know that Burisma was linked to Biden,’’ Luskin said.
That day, two officials representing the newly elected Ukrainian president had come to the White House hoping to shore up relations with the Trump administration.
Instead, the visitors found themselves caught in a showdown between top White House officials.
The two Ukrainian visitors - Andriy Yermak, a top Zelensky adviser, and Oleksandr Danyliuk, the head of Ukraine’s national security and defense council - were first escorted to Bolton’s office, where they met with Vindman, Sondland, White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill and Kurt Volker, the State Department’s special envoy to Ukraine.
As the group discussed the United States’ desire to see Kyiv crack down on corruption, Sondland turned the conversation away from ongoing corruption probes to pursuing specific investigations that were important to Trump, according to testimony from Hill and Vindman.
Bolton was so alarmed by the comments that he cut the meeting short, according to people familiar with the testimony.
Sondland then asked the Ukrainians to accompany him to a previously scheduled debriefing in the Ward Room, a basement conference area used by the national security team.
During that meeting, Sondland ‘‘emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma,’’ a reference to a gas company that tapped Biden’s son Hunter to be on its board, according to Vindman’s opening statement to lawmakers.
Vindman objected, telling Sondland that the request was ‘‘totally inappropriate,’’ according to a person familiar with his testimony.
As tensions mounted, Sondland asked the two Ukrainian officials if they would like to step out of the meeting temporarily, the person said.
Hill, whom Bolton had instructed to monitor Sondland, had just entered the Ward Room. She immediately echoed Vindman’s objections that the request was counter to national security goals, according to her testimony.
‘‘She was very emotional,’’ one person who heard Vindman’s account of the meeting recalled, adding that Hill raised her voice and strongly objected.
Vindman and Hill complained directly to Eisenberg about the episode, according to his testimony and people familiar with their actions. It is unclear whether Eisenberg took any steps in response.
Weeks later, Vindman grew even more alarmed as he sat in the Situation Room listening to Trump speak with Zelensky, according to a person familiar with his testimony. Among the officials present were Tim Morrison, who had just replaced Hill as the senior Russia adviser at the White House, and retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser.
‘‘I would like you to do us a favor,’’ Trump told the Ukrainian president, then asked him to look into the debunked conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee server was transported to Ukraine after it was hacked in 2016, according to a rough transcript released by the White House. Trump also asked Zelensky to pursue an investigation into Biden and his son, the transcript shows.
Stunned, Vindman looked up and made eye contact with Morrison, the person said.
In his statement to lawmakers, Vindman said he ‘‘did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the US government’s support of Ukraine.’’
After the call, Vindman hurried to Eisenberg’s door, bringing with him his twin brother, Yevgeny, an ethics attorney on the National Security Council. Ellis, a deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council, also joined the discussion, the person said.
Vindman read out loud notes he took of the president’s call. Eisenberg then suggested that the National Security Council move records of the call to a separate, highly classified computer system, Vindman told lawmakers.
The White House lawyer later directed the transcript’s removal to a system known as NICE, for NSC Intelligence Collaboration Environment, which is normally reserved for code word-level intelligence programs and top-secret sources and methods, according to an administration official.
Former Trump national security officials said it was unheard of to store presidential calls with foreign leaders on the NICE system but that Eisenberg had moved at least one other transcript of a Trump phone call there.
On Sept. 25, under mounting political pressure, the White House released the rough transcript of the Zelensky call. Trump has declared it a ‘‘perfect call’’ and proof that he has not done anything wrong.
In his testimony, Vindman recalled that on the call, Zelensky raised Burisma by name in response to Trump’s request that the Ukrainians look into the Bidens - a detail not included in the transcript released by the White House.