What I Heard in the White House Basement

I knew the president had clear and straightforward talking points—I’d written them.

An illustration of concentric circles centered around a conference call microphone.
Getty ; The Atlantic

One phone call changed my life.

On Thursday, July 25, 2019, I was seated at the table in one of the two Situation Rooms in the basement of the West Wing. The bigger room is famous from movies and TV shows, but this room is smaller, more typically businesslike: a long wooden table with 10 chairs, maybe a dozen more chairs against wood-paneled walls, and a massive TV screen. This was the room where President Barack Obama and his team watched a feed of the Osama bin Laden raid. This morning, the screen was off. We were all focused intently on the triangular conference-call speaker in the middle of the table. President Donald Trump’s communications team was placing a call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and we were there to listen.

I was a 44-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant colonel assigned to a position equivalent to that of a two-star general, three levels above my rank. Since July 2018, I’d been at the National Security Council, serving as the director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Russia. Recently, deep concerns had been growing throughout the U.S. foreign-policy community regarding two of the countries I was responsible for. We’d long been confused by the president’s policy of accommodation and appeasement toward Russia. But now there were new, rapidly emerging worries. This time the issue was the president’s inexplicable hostility toward a U.S. partner crucial to our Russia strategy: Ukraine.

Ukraine has been a scene of tension and violence since at least the Middle Ages. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, seizing the Crimean Peninsula, home to millions and representing nearly 5 percent of Ukraine’s territory, and attacking its industrial heartland, the Donbass, cleaving even more territory and millions of Ukrainians away from the capital, Kyiv.

By 2019, little had changed. Russia’s annexation and incorporation of the Crimea into the Russian Federation persisted, and Russian military and security forces and their proxy separatists continued to occupy the Donbass. Ukraine’s security was precarious, but the country’s importance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe had only grown. The region could not have been more sensitive, volatile, or crucial to U.S. and NATO interests. Ukrainian leaders had recently assured National Security Adviser John Bolton that they were content to play the role of a buffer against Russian aggression; geography left them little choice. But they did request aid. Actually, they insisted that if Ukrainian blood were to be spilled to defend both the country’s independence and the freedom and prosperity of Europe, the least the West could do was support their efforts.

And yet, only weeks earlier, the White House had abruptly put a hold on nearly $400 million in U.S. security aid that Congress had earmarked for Ukraine. This was money that Ukraine badly needed to fend off the continuous threat of Russian aggression. The abrupt, unexplained White House hold was baffling. Not only was it a 180-degree turn from the stated policy the entire U.S. government supported, but it was also contrary to U.S. national-security interests in the region.

The national-security apparatus had gotten used to the president’s inattention to any policy, let alone foreign policy, so this sudden White House interest in Ukraine was something new, and deeply unsettling. We feared that on a whim, the president might send out a barely coherent tweet or make an offhand public remark or an impulsive decision that could throw carefully crafted policy—official policy of the United States—into total disarray. Because it’s not as if Trump ever made active changes in policy. Indeed, the interagency staff had never been alerted by the West Wing to any shift in national direction. The official Ukraine policy was, in fact, a matter of broad consensus in the diplomatic and military parts of the administration. What exactly, we wondered, was the president doing? How could we advise him to reverse course on this out-of-nowhere hold on funding for Ukraine? If he didn’t lift the hold, something could blow up at any time.

My role was to coordinate all diplomatic, informational, military, and economic policy for the region, across all government departments and agencies. In recent weeks, the community of professional foreign-policy staff within the government had been scrambling to sort out what was going on. Everybody was trying to understand these unsettling developments and to come up with ways of convincing the president that the U.S. had a vital national-security interest in deterring Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s independence. I proposed and was the driving force behind an interagency security-assistance review—which was not, as was later claimed by the Oval Office, a review justifying the hold on the funds, but a means of bringing the discussion out of the shadows and into normal foreign-policy channels.

By the time I sat down at the table in the basement conference room on July 25, preparing to listen to Trump’s call with President Zelensky, my workdays had become consumed by the Oval Office hold on funds. On July 18, I’d convened what we call a Sub-Policy Coordinating Committee, a get-together of senior policy makers for the whole community of interest on Ukraine, from every agency and department, to work up a recommendation for reversing the hold on the funds. By July 21, that meeting had been upgraded to a Policy Coordination Committee, requiring even more administrative and intellectual effort, which convened again two days later. We even scheduled a higher-level Deputies Committee meeting for the day after the Zelensky call. Chaired by the deputy national security adviser, these meetings bring together all of the president’s Cabinet deputies and require an enormous amount of advance research and coordination.

Cover of the book Here, Right Matters by Alexander S. Vindman
This article has been adapted from Alexander Vindman’s forthcoming book.

Many of us were operating on little sleep, working more than the usual NSC 14-hour days. I’d barely seen my wife, Rachel, or my 8-year-old daughter, Eleanor, in weeks.

In the week leading up to the call, I’d discerned a potentially dangerous wrinkle in the Ukraine situation. Actions by the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani suggested a hidden motive for the White House’s sudden interest in Ukraine. Operating far outside normal policy circles, Giuliani had been on a mysterious errand that also seemed to involve the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and the White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d participated in a meeting at the White House at which Sondland made a suggestion to some visiting top Ukrainian officials: If President Zelensky pursued certain investigations, he might be rewarded with a visit to the White House. These proposed investigations would be of former Vice President and current Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Sondland’s proposal was clearly improper. Little could have been more valuable to the new, young, untested leader of Ukraine—the country most vulnerable to Russia—than a one-on-one meeting with the president of the United States. A bilateral visit would signal to Russia and the rest of the world a staunch U.S. commitment to having Ukraine’s back as well as U.S. support for Zelensky’s reform and anti-corruption agenda, which was crucial to Ukraine’s prosperity and to closer integration with the European Union. That’s what all of us in the policy community wanted, of course. But making such a supremely valuable piece of U.S. diplomacy dependent on an ally’s carrying out investigations into U.S. citizens—not to mention the president’s political adversary—was unheard of. Before I’d fully picked up on what was going on, that meeting with the Ukrainians had been abruptly broken up by Bolton. But in a subsequent meeting among U.S. officials, at which Sondland reiterated the idea, I told him point-blank that I thought his proposition was wrong and that the NSC would not be party to such an enterprise.

I wanted to believe Sondland was a loose cannon, floating wild ideas of his own, with support from a few misguided colleagues. But he wasn’t a freelancing outlier like Giuliani. He was an appointed government official. His maneuverings had me worried.

One other thing made me apprehensive. The call had originally been proposed for July 22, the day after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, and its stated purpose was to congratulate Zelensky on his party’s landslide victory. Then it was abruptly rescheduled for the morning of July 25 with no explanation. On the way over to the White House, I’d made a suggestion to my new boss, Tim Morrison.

“You know, we probably want to get the lawyers involved,” I said, “to listen in.” I meant the NSC legal team. Tim and I were going down the stairs from my third-floor office in the Old Executive Office Building, the massive five-story structure immediately adjacent to the White House, heading for the West Wing basement.

Tim gave me a sardonic look.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because this could go all haywire,” I replied.

Tim dismissed my suggestion out of hand. Knowing that Fiona Hill, my recently departed boss at the National Security Council, had briefed him on the July 10 meeting with Sondland, and thinking him wise enough to recognize the risks, I didn’t understand his resistance. He’d replaced Fiona only days earlier, and I was still getting used to his management style.

Fiona had hired me. Highly regarded in her field, she was a brilliant and thoughtful scholar and analyst with a vast global network. She’d previously served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a national-intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia, and she’d written the book, literally, on Putin. Fiona was a great boss—not that we were always in sync: I’d often wanted to be more forward-leaning on policy prescriptions, and, with a strong sense of the political minefields, Fiona would pull me back, sometimes to my frustration. Still, we respected and appreciated each other. Fiona had expected to leave soon after Bolton came in as national security adviser, but then she’d agreed to stay through the fall, then spring, then summer, and maybe even later. Tim, a Bolton protégé, really wanted the promotion, however, and by June it was clear that Fiona would be leaving.

Caustic and bristling, Tim had little expertise in Eastern Europe and Russia. Unlike Fiona, who sought out expert input, he was clearly eager to establish a lot of control. Still, I thought Tim might be willing to push harder and more directly than Fiona had. Maybe we’d work well together. He naturally wanted to get the Ukraine relationship back on track and notch some successes, as did Bolton, and I expected Tim to encourage me to keep organizing the policy consensus for recommending lifting the hold on funds.

And so, despite all my apprehension, as I sat at the conference table and heard the president’s call being connected, I had hope, too. This call could well be pleasant, friendly, and productive. The president liked winners, and Zelensky’s whole party had scored a huge victory. I knew the president had clear and straightforward talking points—I’d written them. He was to congratulate Zelensky, show support for Ukraine’s reform and anti-corruption agenda, and urge caution regarding the Russians; they would try to manipulate and test Zelensky early on. If Trump stayed on script, we could begin to get U.S. policy for the region back where it needed to be. I had some confidence in Zelensky, too. I’d met him in Ukraine; he was funny, charismatic, smart.

The White House operator said, “The parties are now connected.” Trump began speaking, and I knew right away that everything was going wrong.

I was born in Soviet Ukraine and lost my mother at the age of 3. After her death, our family fled the Soviet Union. My father brought me and my identical twin brother, Yevgeny; our older brother, Len; and our maternal grandmother to the United States, where we settled in Brooklyn. A top Soviet civil engineer and administrator, my father started over from scratch in America.

He raised three boys, did physical labor for a living, learned English, and began to succeed in our adopted country. America lived up to its promise to reward hard work and patriotic dedication. My twin brother and I went to college and then directly into the military and a life of public service; my older brother joined the Army Reserve, and my stepbrother, Alex, joined the Marines after high school. Not only the United States, but the U.S. Army became my home, and my Army career took me to places and put me in positions I never could have imagined: from combat service in Iraq to a diplomatic and Defense Intelligence Agency posting in Moscow; and from the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the political and military expert on Russia to the National Security Council as a director with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and the Caucasus. By 2019, I was on track for a promotion to full colonel. I’d even gained the coveted prize of admission to the U.S. Army War College, a senior service school. I had served, and my service had been rewarded. This 44-year period was the first phase of my life.

The second phase of my life began on July 25, 2019.

As I listened to the president’s voice rising from the conference-table speaker, I was rapidly scribbling in my large green government notebook. And my heart was sinking.

“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine,” Trump was telling Zelensky. “We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time, much more than the European countries are doing, and they should be helping you more than they are. Germany does almost nothing for you.”

The president’s tone was detached, unfriendly. His voice was lower and deeper than usual, as if he were having a bad morning. He wasn’t in the room with us—he was taking the call in the residence, but that wasn’t unusual for him. He was routinely unavailable, and certainly not present in the Oval Office, until late morning or early afternoon.

Zelensky is a comedian by profession. He was telling self-deprecating jokes, making fun of his own poll numbers and saying that he had to win more elections to speak regularly with President Trump. My fluency in Ukrainian allowed me to catch the nuance. As head of state for a vulnerable and dependent country, Zelensky was giving it everything he had: trying to build a rapport with the president, flattering a notoriously egotistical character, steering the conversation toward the military aid, and gently trying to elicit the personal White House visit that he and his country so desperately needed.

Trump wasn’t responsive. Monotone and standoffish, he remained stubbornly aloof to Zelensky’s efforts to make a personal connection. The president wasn’t using my talking points at all. He may never have seen them. As the conversation progressed, my worst fears about the call kept being reconfirmed. Off on a tangent of his own, the president was aggravating a potentially explosive foreign-policy situation.

And so I did what we in the foreign-policy community so often found ourselves doing during the Trump presidency. I began to accept that all our hopes for today’s chat had been dashed. I had to move on. In the face of the president’s erratic behavior, that’s what we’d all learned to do. I began mentally walking through new ways to rectify the situation. If the hold on security assistance to Ukraine was not lifted by early August, the Department of Defense would not be able to send the funds required by Congress. I was thinking fast. There was a tentative plan for Bolton to take a personal trip to the region I covered. If Bolton met with Zelensky on that trip, could we get another bite from Trump, maybe start shifting things back in the right direction? Maybe the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, could have a phone conversation with Zelensky and report back to the president that Ukraine warranted a shift in the antagonistic approach coming from the Oval Office? And I could always redouble my efforts to coordinate an interagency position: Maybe the unanimity of government certainty that aid to Ukraine was a national-security imperative would sway the president and get him to lift the hold.

It may seem surprising that my colleagues and I were busy thinking up ways to pursue a Ukraine policy out of sync with the direction that the president of the United States himself now seemed to be taking. But seemed is the key word. The policy of U.S. support for Ukraine had remained in place all along, with the unanimous consent of the secretary of state, all the Cabinet deputies, and bipartisan congressional leadership, including Trump’s most loyal followers: Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and the chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. It’s true that odd, outlying data points contradicted the policy: Giuliani, Sondland, Mulvaney, and their mysterious errand; the hold on funds; the president’s negative tone on this call with Zelensky. But these indicators were consistent with a pattern in which the president made ill-conceived decisions only to retract them later.

The fact is that because Trump never provided any policy guidance, nobody in responsible circles—people far senior to me—ever took his remarks seriously. They’d wait to see if anything more substantive confirmed what he’d said, continuing, in the meantime, to pursue agreed-upon directions. Because Tim Morrison, my new boss at NSC, had also directed that we continue on course and not treat anything the president might say as a change in policy, there was really nothing else to do.

From the speaker, I could hear Zelensky trying to work Trump around to the U.S. security money for Ukraine.

“I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense,” Zelensky said. “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” He was referring to a U.S.-made infrared-guided antitank weapon, the Javelin, to be used against Russian armored vehicles.

The president didn’t miss a beat.

“I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

I paused in my note-taking.

The president began rolling out an outlandish, discredited conspiracy theory that Giuliani had recently been promoting publicly. According to this theory, the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee email server had been directed not by the government of Russia, as all U.S. intelligence had shown, but by some rich Ukrainian. The president told Zelensky that he’d like him to look into the matter. To that end, he asked Zelensky to cooperate with the U.S. attorney general, William Barr. The president also blamed actors in Ukraine for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s possible abuse of power and suggested that Zelensky could improve his country’s relationship with the United States by pursuing and proving this bizarre conspiracy.

Not surprisingly, Zelensky took up the subject with alacrity, though he was careful to speak in general terms.

“We are open for any future cooperation,” he assured Trump. “We are ready to open a new page on cooperation in relations between the United States and Ukraine.”

Zelensky responded favorably to Trump’s criticism of the recent firing of the corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors Yuriy Lutsenko and Viktor Shokin—“a very good prosecutor,” Trump called Lutsenko—and he assured the president that he would appoint a credible, reliable general prosecutor and surround himself only with the kind of people of whom Trump would approve. Zelensky said he would be happy to see Giuliani in Ukraine at any time. And, of course, he very much hoped to meet face-to-face with the president himself.

Though I was growing more unsettled, I’d started taking notes again. I still couldn’t get a handle on what was going on, but I’d entirely given up hope for anything positive coming out of the discussion.

“The other thing,” the president continued: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son.”

My head snapped up. I looked quickly around the table. Were others tracking this?

“That Biden stopped the prosecution,” the president said.

Burisma, the Ukrainian company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter served, had indeed been investigated during the Obama administration. But the investigation had been into activities that took place prior to Hunter Biden’s joining the board. There was nothing to support the allegation that Joe Biden had a personal stake in firing Shokin—that he had stopped an investigation, as Trump was now saying, in order to protect his son from investigation. In reality, as everyone in the foreign-policy community knew, the prosecutor had been fired for a lack of investigative rigor. Even if there had been anything to this Biden story, the president’s bringing up such an allegation against a political rival, or any American citizen at all, and demanding an investigation on a call with a foreign head of state was crossing the brightest of bright lines.

But now the president went even further.

“A lot of people want to find out about that,” he told Zelensky. “So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it …”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I knew that Giuliani had been publicly pushing the false Biden story. And I’d been disturbed to hear Sondland suggest to Ukrainian officials that if Ukraine pursued certain investigations, Zelensky would get a White House visit. Still, for all my long-running concerns about Trump’s approach to Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, and for all of my immediate concerns about how this call with Zelensky might go, I had refused to imagine that I would ever hear a president of the United States ask a foreign head of state—a state dependent on vital U.S. security aid that Congress had earmarked for it, thus binding the executive branch to deliver that aid—to, in essence, manufacture compromising material on an American citizen in exchange for that support. The president was brazenly involving not only himself but also Attorney General Barr, as well as his personal attorney Giuliani, in a wholly improper effort to subvert U.S. foreign policy in order to game an election.

My glance around the table confirmed that I wasn’t the only one taking in what was happening. Across from me sat Tim, who less than an hour earlier had rejected my suggestion to get legal to listen in. A lawyer himself, Tim has an expressive face. He, too, was looking up, eyes darting around. Then he took a deep breath as if to say, Oh, so it’s that kind of call.

Jennifer Williams, of the State Department, was sitting next to me at the table. I’m not sure how much she picked up at that precise moment, but later she said that she had a concern. A press officer was also on the call; she wasn’t missing any nuance. A European immigrant like me, she’d served in Eastern Europe and knew how certain governments there operated. They operated like this.

Now we knew: This was what Giuliani, Sondland, and Mulvaney had been up to. This was the president’s purpose in placing a hold on the funds to Ukraine. He meant to use lifting the hold as an inducement for Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden. His real purpose in making this call had nothing to do with repairing Ukraine policy. He was extorting Ukraine to damage a political challenger at home and boost his own political fortunes.

Meanwhile, Zelensky, whose comedy background made him good at reading his audience, started kvelling about the time he’d stayed in Trump Tower in New York City; about the Ukrainian friends he had in the United States; about all the American oil that Ukraine was planning to buy; and about the prize: how much he’d like to visit the White House. And he assured Trump that he would pursue a transparent inquiry into Hunter Biden. That was enough.

At last the president became friendly, very friendly: “Whenever you would like to come to the White House,” he said, “feel free to call. Give us a date, and we’ll work that out. I look forward to seeing you.”

This was one of Zelensky’s key goals for the call, so he expressed delight at the offer and reciprocated by offering to host Trump in Kyiv or meet him in Poland. As the call wound down, Trump again congratulated Zelensky, in his way.

“I’m not sure it was so much of an upset,” he said, referring to the Ukrainian elections, “but congratulations.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” said Zelensky. “Bye-bye.”

The next thing I remember clearly is being back in the Old Executive Office Building, in the office of the chief ethics counsel for the NSC. This was Yevgeny Vindman, my identical twin brother. A lawyer, Yevgeny has had a long military career, including serving as an 82nd Airborne platoon leader and as a judge advocate general. Our careers had kept us apart since our college days, but in 2016, Yevgeny and I started working in the same building at the Pentagon, and now we were both at the NSC, in offices across from each other. We’d been through a lot together, and like most identical twins, we share something of a world of our own. Like many brothers, we can be a bit rowdy with each other, competitive in a friendly way, indulging in some good-natured mock insults.

They say that everybody has a quiet inner voice of good judgment.

In my life, that quiet inner voice has been a real person: my brother. Our unique relationship was about to matter more than it ever had before. The walk that morning from the White House basement up to my brother’s office is pretty much a blur but I do remember looking around the conference room when the meeting broke up, knowing that others, including my boss, had heard what I’d heard. In that moment, I realized something right away. Nobody else was going to say anything about it. I was the person most knowledgeable about and officially responsible for the portfolio. If I didn’t report up the chain of command what I knew, no one might ever find out what the president was up to with Ukraine and the 2020 U.S. election. That’s why I went straight to Yevgeny’s office.

Regardless of any impact on the president, or of the domestic- and foreign-policy consequences, or of personal costs, I had no choice but to report what I’d heard. That duty to report is an important component of U.S. Army values and of the oath I’d taken to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. Despite the president’s constitutional role as commander in chief, at the apex of the military chain of command—in fact, because of his role—I had an obligation to report misconduct.

Yevgeny, who had the highest security clearances, was therefore uniquely positioned to advise me on the proper procedures, and I knew that he would support my doing my duty. He would protect, at all costs, my telling the truth. He would never be swayed by any institutional or presidential interest in covering it up.

I made sure to close the door behind me. “If what I just heard becomes public,” I told my brother, “the president will be impeached.”

It’s been a year of turmoil for the country, and for my family and me. I’m no longer at the National Security Council. I’m no longer an officer in the U.S. Army. I’m living in the great unknown, and so, to a great degree, is our country.

But because I’ve never had any doubt about the fitness of my decision, I remain at peace with the consequences that continue to unfold.

This article has been adapted from Alexander Vindman’s new book, Here, Right Matters: An American Story.