Read more: What the whistle-blower’s memo taught me
Head-of-state phone calls are a big-ticket item, scheduled rarely, and meant to open the way for a significant new agenda, to close a tough deal, or to manage a crisis that affects America’s national security. Preparation for such calls is carefully managed, drawing on experts across the government’s national-security community to winnow down the agenda to issues that only the president can litigate, coordinate talking points and positions among colleagues, and ensure that there will be no surprises from foreign counterparts.
The transcript of President Donald Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, too, looks eerily familiar. Note takers in the White House Situation Room collaborate with NSC directors and use speech-to-text software to pull together a working transcript that chronicles the call, a great resource when listening to translations. NSC and press experts quickly draft a public read-out of the discussion, attempting to shaping the message for a range of audiences. Summaries and records of presidential calls are in high demand among government officials, who use them as a map to plan their next steps. They are usually shared briefly and informally among colleagues and then more formally at senior-leader levels, when memos for the record are complete. Distribution of such memos may be constrained by the sensitivity of negotiations or if they make reference to high-risk security activities, but it is generally accepted that sharing as much as possible about such discussions is beneficial and desirable.
The other elements of the discussion are, taken on their own, also not unusual. Career ambassadors can play a stabilizing role in delivering policy messages, bridging the gap between foreign governments and American administrations. Special envoys—including private citizens—occupy a trickier place in the execution of foreign-policy portfolios, sometimes offering an outlet for tough negotiations and other times awkwardly making waves without bureaucratic resources or sway. Foreign assistance can be usefully conditioned on progress in governance, human rights, security, and cooperation. And high-profile travel and bilateral meetings can be a carrot—or a stick—for a rewarding partnership.
The whistle-blower’s complaint is shocking because it offers all of these elements reflected in a warped fun-house mirror. Regardless of the machinations of his staff, Trump sought and conducted this phone call with the intent of executing personal and political business. He ignored careful government preparation intended to help him advance policy objectives—expertise available only to presidents—instead pursuing conspiracy and confused gossip of unknown origin.
Records of the call were “locked down”: apparently removed from the accessible servers and computers of those who had previously read the transcript, and stored, at the direction of counsel, on a stand-alone compartmentalized system used solely for the purpose of storing code-word material. In effect, this means that the transcript was put in the most secure staff office in the White House complex, as protected as the most sensitive covert matters, because the transcript was embarrassing.