More information emerges about the Ukraine scandal

The beginning of the impeachment process seems to have sent Donald Trump into a rage, leading him to call six members of Congress ‘savages’. But it looks like things are only going to get worse for him because people are now looking back over the timeline of events on the Ukraine scandal and starting to connect the dots and it turns out that there are a lot of dots all over the place. One is the abrupt firing on July 28th of Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence (DNI), just three days after the infamous phone call with Ukrainian president Zelensky,, and the insistence by Donald Trump that the deputy director Sue Gordon, a career intelligence professional, not be given the job and that indeed she should resign, which she reluctantly did.

This was followed by the attempt by Trump to appoint a rabidly partisan and utterly unqualified congressman John Ratcliffe to the position of DNI but that was too much even for Republicans in congress when it turned out that Ratcliffe had ‘exaggerated’ (Washington speak for ‘lied’) on his resume about his intelligence experience and he withdrew. The current acting DNI is Joseph Maguire, an intelligence professional and a former navy vice-admiral and not a rabid partisan as far as we know.

Meanwhile Kurt Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine, who was mentioned several times in the whistleblower’s complaint and was involved in setting up meetings between Rudy Giuliani and representatives of the Ukrainian president, abruptly resigned yesterday. Why? What does that mean? Who the hell knows? He is due to testify at the impeachment hearings and we may learn more then

Also Giuliani, at the height of this controversy, announced that he was making a paid appearance at a Kremlin-backed conference next week, seemingly oblivious to the optics of it. Following the utterly predictable backlash, he canceled the talk, the same day as his announcement that he was going for it. The big question is why anyone would pay an incoherent loon like Giuliani to speak anywhere on anything at all. I might pay him to just shut up. The answer is that no one wants to hear him speak, they just want him as a conduit to gain access to Trump.

And finally, it turns out that Trump went to extraordinary lengths to restrict access to calls with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Russian president Vladimir Putin, so that people who would normally know the contents of such calls were kept in the dark.

All these questions about phone calls between heads of state piqued my interest about how such calls are handled. It turns out that normally a lot of people have access to them in various forms.

Traditionally, officials from the US national security council (NSC) brief the president before a call with a foreign leader. Then the briefers sit in the Oval Office with the president while he speaks on the phone with the foreign leader. “At least two members of the NSC are usually present,” according to USA Today.

There will also be officials sitting in a secure room in another part of the White House, listening to the president’s call and taking notes. Their notes are known as a “memorandum of telephone conversation”, and like many things in Washington it has an abbreviation: “memcon”.

The president’s calls with foreign leaders are also transcribed by computers. Afterwards, as former White House officials explain, the human note takers compare their impressions with an electronic version of the call. The notes from the officials and from the computerised transcriptions are combined into one document. This transcript may not be perfect, but it is done as carefully as time and resources allow.

In the case of the president’s phone call with Mr Zelensky, according to the whistleblower’s complaint, about a dozen people were listening to their conversation.

Officials who work in the executive secretary’s office of the US national security council decide on the level of classification for the transcript of a call, explain former White House officials.

If the transcript contains information that could put national security or lives of individuals at risk, the transcript is classified as top secret and is kept in a protected area.

Classifying the transcript of a call as “top secret” means that only individuals in the US government with the highest level of security clearance can see the material.

Classifying a transcript as secret – but not top secret – means that officials can discuss the contents of the presidents’ calls more easily with others who work in the government.

The phone call with Zelensky was classified as ‘top secret’ though it appears that there was nothing it as far as national security was concerned to warrant that level of secrecy.


  1. Mark Dowd says

    Why do they only rely on computer transcription? You have that many people listening in already, you can afford to add a professional stenographer. Or better yet, record the audio so it can be transcribed at the stenograoher’s leisure.

    I’m getting flashes of “why the FBI doesn’t record their interrogations and only use officer notes”. It seems like there is no reasonable reason, and only nefarious ones remain.

  2. Dunc says

    @2: Well, yeah. Every customer contact centre in the world records calls for “training and quality control purposes”, but the friggin’ White House doesn’t?

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