Why did the White House staff try to bury the transcript of Donald Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rather than circulate it through the Cabinet as usual? The answer appears to be that within minutes of Trump’s call, the switchboards at the White House were lighting up with calls from national security advisers and Pentagon officials hurrying to raise a red flag over Trump’s statements.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just Ambassador William Taylor who thought that tying military aid to a political favor for Donald Trump was “crazy.” As The Washington Post reports, Trump had barely set down the phone before then-national security adviser John Bolton was being barraged by calls by those driven to distraction by what Trump had said. Four of these officials were so concerned by Trump’s bald extortion attempt that they went to a White House attorney “immediately after the call.” The result appears to be that the rough transcript of Trump’s call was ripped from the normal White House server and shoved into a high security server, where even Bolton couldn’t get a peek.
Some of those in the White House approached National Security Council legal adviser John Eisenberg, seeking some official way to lodge a complaint about Trump’s actions. But those who went to the NSA attorney were shot down by the news that there is no equivalent to whistleblower protection in the White House. If they stepped forward, their jobs would be forfeit, and they still wouldn’t be able to talk about what they knew.
And, as Yahoo News reports, things were equally confusing over at the Pentagon. Caught off guard by Trump’s order to place a hold on aid to Ukraine, the military was staring at a September 30 deadline after which the funding legislation would expire. It was enough that Department of Defense officials began to work on something absolutely extraordinary—a legal challenge to Trump’s freezing of the funds.
Inside the White House, the NSA was screaming about the threat to national security. At the Pentagon, Defense officials were preparing to take their own commander in chief to court. That was the result of Trump’s “perfect call.” The wonder is not that the whistleblower brought this case forward. The wonder is that Trump’s White House managed to silence the bullhorns that were sounding from every direction.
The Defense Department had thought the issue was settled some months before. Not only had the funding been approved, but the undersecretary for defense policy sent Congress a detailed list of exactly the sorts of weapons that were needed to fend off Russian forces pressing into the Donbas region. From rifles to radar, it was a list of critical needs, one that the undersecretary confidently reported would begin to be shipped “no sooner than 15 days following this notification.” As it happened “no sooner than” became much later then, as Trump’s hold refused to let anything move until September.
In every agency, including the State Department and the OMB, line officials were trying to make things happen—or at least learn why they were not happening—only to find their inquiries blocked by officials in the White House. Despite the excuses that Trump produced since the whistleblower report came out, no one was hearing those excuses through the summer. Instead, those who had some information, such as Ambassador Taylor, understood clearly that this was Trump strong-arming Ukraine in exchange for a personal political favor.
And just as with those outside agencies, the officials inside the White House who complained following Trump’s call found that their complaints went nowhere. Though at least one was told by NSA counsel Eisenberg that he would “follow up,” and possibly relay concerns to White House attorney Pat Cipollone. But Cipollone’s primary role since spring has been playing “goalie” for Trump, blocking any testimony or documents from escaping the White House. If Eisenberg took the concerns of those who talked to him to Cipollone, that likely played a role in both the lockdown of information about the call, and the response that the White House made when learning about the whistleblower from the acting director of National Intelligence.