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Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Today, Explained breaks down the newly released complaint.

Last week, we learned that a whistleblower had made a complaint against President Trump that involved a call with a foreign leader. But although House Democrats continued to ask to see the complaint, the White House wouldn’t release a copy of it.

On Wednesday, the administration did provide a rough transcript of the phone call Trump had on July 25 with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which only raised more questions and caused speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce Tuesday that the House would launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s presidency.

Then on Thursday morning, an unclassified but partially redacted version of the whistleblower’s complaint was made public.

Andrew Prokop, Vox senior political correspondent, returned to Today, Explained for the fourth day in a row to explain what’s inside the complaint.

“In addition to describing what happened on the now-infamous July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, the whistleblower also describes an alleged White House effort to cover up or hide documents related to what happened on that call,” Prokop told host Sean Rameswaram.

“The second big takeaway is that the whistleblower really makes clear that this is not just about what happened on one phone call. He or she chronicles a series of events that took place over months involving Trump that tell a story of a concerted, continuous pressure campaign on the Ukrainian government to start these investigations that would help Trump politically.”

The whistleblower report alleges that multiple US officials said that “Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the president and President Zelensky would depend on whether Zelensky showed [a] willingness to play ball on those investigative issues,” Prokop added.

A main question at this point is whether or not Trump was using Ukraine’s $400 million in military aid — which he’d ordered chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to suspend — as a bargaining chip when telling Zelensky “I would like you to do us a favor” during the July 25 call.

A second question is whether White House officials were specifically told to remove the electronic transcript of the call in question and, even more importantly, whether records of the president’s calls had been hidden other times in the past.

Prokop broke down the report, its allegations, and what it might mean for the Trump administration on this episode of Today, Explained. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of his conversation with host Sean Rameswaram.

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Sean Rameswaram

Let me just recap this whole whistleblower thing real quick, at least since the public’s been aware of it.

It was just shy of two weeks ago that we learned that a whistleblower had made a complaint against the president of the United States. That was it. No details. Democrats wanted the complaint; the administration wouldn’t provide it. Nevertheless, towards the end of last week, the details started to spill out.

The complaint is about a phone call. It involves Ukraine. At the end of last week, more details: allegations that President Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. And there may have been hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid on the line.

Democrats continue to demand the complaint itself. But the administration holds. Instead, yesterday they release a rough transcript of the phone call. Finally, towards the end of the day yesterday, the administration gives the whistleblower complaint to the House Intelligence Committee. And this morning, the unclassified version is released to the public. Andrew Prokop has been sitting in the “Today, Explained” studio at Vox since Monday covering this with us.

Andrew Prokop

So the first big takeaway is that in addition to describing what happened on the now infamous July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, the whistleblower also describes an alleged White House effort to cover up or hide documents related to what happened on that call.

The second big takeaway is that the whistleblower really makes clear that this is not just about what happened on one phone call. He or she chronicles a series of events that took place over months involving Trump that tell a story of a concerted, continuous pressure campaign on the Ukrainian government to start these investigations that would help Trump politically.

Sean Rameswaram

Okay, let’s start with No. 1: How did the White House try to cover up the phone call?

Andrew Prokop

So the whistleblower writes, “In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple US officials that senior White House officials had intervened to lock down all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript.”

Sean Rameswaram

Is that the transcript you and I talked about yesterday or is this a different transcript?

Andrew Prokop

It’s not entirely clear. There are two possibilities: one is that the whistleblower was a bit inexact in referring to a word-for-word transcript. The document that was released yesterday was not a verbatim transcript but it was written like one.

The other possibility is that there is still an exact word-for-word transcript that is hidden away somewhere, which would obviously be very interesting indeed.

Sean Rameswaram

So how exactly did the White House try to “lock down” this transcript, whichever one it may have been?

Andrew Prokop

So according to the whistleblower, White House officials said they were directed by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored.

So they moved it to a separate electronic and record-keeping system that’s used for much more secretive information — information of an especially sensitive nature, the whistleblower writes.

One White House official per the whistleblower described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective. So basically they’re trying to say that the White House was trying to use secretive procedures designed to shield national security information to keep politically damaging stuff about Trump from being distributed too widely within the government, and the whistleblower mentions that he or she has heard that this is not the first time that this has happened.

Sean Rameswaram

So the whistleblower is saying that the White House tried to hide any record of this call and has potentially done this other times.

Andrew Prokop

The subtext is that they knew it would look really bad. The whistleblower also says that White House officials were talking soon afterward about how Trump appeared to have done something very inappropriate here. This is used, they say, for stuff such as covert action programs, like very secretive stuff that the United States is doing abroad, not just Trump says something to a foreign leader that he does not want to get out publicly. And so this effort to use dubious national security pretexts to hide away this document and make sure that not too many people in the US government could get to see it starts to look pretty shady, like part of a cover-up.

Sean Rameswaram

What about this second bucket of all these other events that happened around the phone call, this sort of pressure campaign that the Trump administration placed on Ukraine?

Andrew Prokop

So the complaint spends several pages laying out a broader context for that now infamous July 25th Trump phone call with Zelensky.

It tells a pretty damning story based partly on public events and partly on what the whistleblower has been hearing privately from US officials. that since early this year Giuliani has been saying publicly and also meeting Ukrainian officials behind the scenes to make clear that he really wants these investigations into the Bidens and into the origins of the FBI’s Russian interference investigation.

For instance, the whistleblower mentions that multiple US officials told me that the Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the president and President Zelensky would depend on whether Zelensky showed willingness to play ball on those investigative issues. Also multiple US officials, quote, “were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decision-making process to engage with Ukrainian officials and relayed messages back and forth between Kyiv and the president.”

And then there’s another claim that Trump instructed Vice President Mike Pence to cancel his planned trip to Ukraine to attend Zelensky’s inauguration. They sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead, which was a bit of trade down. So this all appears to be an effort to send a message to Zelensky that he’s got to do what Trump wanted, which is what Rudy wanted, which is to pursue these investigations.

Sean Rameswaram

The complaint here says that Trump pressured Zelensky and yesterday, in their joint press conference at the UN, they both said there was no pressure. What are we to believe here?

Andrew Prokop

I think it’s pretty clear that the whistleblower knows pretty well what he or she is talking about. And the reason for that is that in the complaint there’s an extensive description of what the whistleblower has heard about Trump’s phone call with Zelensky on July 25th.

That’s the phone call that the White House just released their own internal documents summarizing what happened in the semi-transcript that we talked about yesterday. And it very closely matches what the whistleblower has laid out. The whistleblower makes clear that he or she wasn’t in the room for the call. They don’t appear to have seen the exact transcript of the call.

But there is a very specific description of what happened on the call. All of the key aspects of it, essentially: that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate the origins of the FBI’s Russian interference investigation, and that Trump repeatedly told Zelensky to meet or speak with both his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr.

None of this is even disputed at this point. It’s all confirmed in the document that the White House itself released. So that really does seem to bolster the whistleblower’s credibility. They may not have been in the room, but they were talking to people who know what they are talking about.

Sean Rameswaram

We established yesterday that this transcript that was released by the White House did not look good. How much worse is it made by the fact that it’s so closely corroborated by this whistleblower’s complaint?

Andrew Prokop

The whistleblower complaint confirms a lot of the stuff that already did not look good and then it adds new stuff that does not look good: namely, the White House effort to cover up the records of Trump’s call with Zelensky and the various other potential events that were connected to this that the whistleblower lays out.

Sean Rameswaram

Do you think the whistleblower will stay anonymous or will he or she eventually end up testifying before Congress like the DNI did today?

Andrew Prokop

According to the whistleblower’s lawyers who are making public statements about the case, the person does want to remain anonymous, but they also are willing to testify. So if testimony happens obviously they will try to make sure that the person’s identity is protected, whether technologically or whether just trusting members of Congress not to leak it, I guess.

Sean Rameswaram

And if it does get leaked?

Andrew Prokop

That would probably be pretty unpleasant for the whistleblower because they would then end up being a named target of President Trump, criticized by Fox News, and we should note that the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph McGuire has said that he is going to do whatever he can to try and protect the whistleblower from retaliation and their identity from being disclosed.

Sean Rameswaram

How has President Trump reacted to all this news that’s broken?

Andrew Prokop

So Trump spoke to a crowd of staff from the US Mission to the United Nations, and from audio obtained by the LA Times we know he said to them:

Sean Rameswaram

What is he trying to say there?

Andrew Prokop

I think he’s alluding to the fact that in the old days spies and people who committed treason were executed.

Sean Rameswaram

Just minutes after the whistleblower’s complaint was released, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire began his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. What did we know about him going into today?

Andrew Prokop

So Maguire is a pretty nonpartisan figure. He had a lengthy military career in the Navy and he returned to government to be the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in 2018 because Trump pushed out the people who were the No. 1 and No. 2 in the office of the director of National Intelligence. He is now the acting director of National Intelligence.

Sean Rameswaram

And how long again has he been on the job?

Andrew Prokop

Six weeks.

Sean Rameswaram

So why was he there today in front of Congress?

Andrew Prokop

So the whistleblower filed this complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community.

Sean Rameswaram

And his name?

Andrew Prokop

Michael Atkinson.

Sean Rameswaram

And he’s a Trump appointee?

Andrew Prokop

Yes. Atkinson is a Trump appointee. He reviewed the complaint and concluded that this complaint was a matter of urgent concern and that it was credible. So he told Maguire, the acting director of National Intelligence, about this finding. And then Maguire, according to the law, was supposed to transmit this whistleblower complaint to the congressional intelligence committees. But he didn’t do that.

What ended up happening is that the Inspector General went to the intelligence committees himself and told them about what was going on. So they wanted to hear from Maguire today and they wanted to hear, why didn’t you give this whistleblower complaint over to us when we think by law you should have been obligated to do this weeks ago?

Sean Rameswaram

So that’s the central question here: Why didn’t the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph McGuire immediately submit this whistleblower complaint to Congress? What was his answer?

Andrew Prokop

So he said that because this complaint involved conduct by the President of the United States and it brought up some complicated legal issues that he wanted to make sure he was in the right. So one of those was the question of executive privilege and he says that he talked to the White House counsel about this.

Then Maguire said there was a second issue: that he wanted to be sure whether this whistleblower complaint actually was a matter of urgent concern, and his team consulted with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel about that. And that office, OLC, reviewed the matter and they decided that in their view it wasn’t a matter of urgent concern that falls under this law.

And the way the executive branch works, once the OLC makes a finding like that, the director of National Intelligence would be bound by their finding.

Sean Rameswaram

And he got how much pushback on that, approximately?

Andrew Prokop

A lot from Democrats. Maguire kept describing the situation that he was in as…[“unprecedented”].

Because, you know, this is a complaint about the conduct of the President of the United States and it’s not about some ordinary government official’s wrongdoing, and that brings up a whole host of assorted legal issues.

Sean Rameswaram

As per usual, watching this testimony felt like some sort of whiplash, because Democrats were trying to probe to the process by which he did or did not submit this to Congress. And Republicans were just mostly attacking the hearing itself. What was their strategy?

Andrew Prokop

This was a bit of an awkward hearing for Republicans because Maguire is not really a rock solid Trump guy who will go out of his way to politically defend the president, but he’s not looking to politically attack the president either. And so Devin Nunes, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, and other Republicans kind of struggled with how to handle that. Nunes, at one point, almost warned McGuire that “you should be careful about what you say” because: “They’re going to try to get you to say something that can be repeated by the media that is here that wants to report this story.”

“They” meaning the Democrats, will try to use it against you.

But overall it was not really a comfortable place for the GOP to be in. A few of them admitted that the allegations were in fact serious. Others of course tried to completely dismiss them and say it was all a big nothing.

Sean Rameswaram

Despite that there was something very interesting about seeing this intelligence officer with a storied career in the military who represents the Trump administration but isn’t necessarily a political figure up there testifying before a number of political figures. Did anything interesting present itself in that unique situation?

Andrew Prokop

There was this one moment that was perhaps a bit off script for a Trump administration appointee, where Maguire talked about the most important threats facing the United States at this point that he has to deal with in his job.

Which really does seem to get to the heart of the whistleblower complaint itself. And the challenge that the entire political system faces going forward in dealing with this topic of Trump trying to swing the 2020 election.

Author: Delia Paunescu

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