Bolton was not on the line. By late July, the relationship between Trump and Bolton was deeply strained. But typically, a national security adviser accompanies the president on phone calls with foreign leaders.
Elsewhere, a State Department interpreter fluent in Ukrainian was providing real-time translation. And a duty officer from the Situation Room took notes that would later be paired with a log of the call using voice recognition software to put together a rough transcript.
Almost as soon as Trump had hung up, word of what he said on the call began to circulate among National Security Council staffers — in particular, his request that Zelensky investigate Biden. The entreaty caused concern among some of his national security officials, who discussed among themselves whether Trump had crossed a line.
Eventually, the internal consternation escalated. Within roughly a week, the top lawyer at an intelligence agency had contacted John Eisenberg, the top lawyer on the National Security Council, to discuss concerns raised by an intelligence officer through a colleague about a phone call Trump had held with a foreign leader, though didn’t specify the country in question.
Eisenberg said he had a vague understanding of the concerns surrounding the Zelensky call and would do some more digging on it, according to person familiar with the matter.
Around the same time, a transcript of the call was being finalized by staffers at the National Security Council. Initially, the process of transcribing and archiving the call followed the standard procedure for dozens of previous presidential calls with foreign leaders: The raw transcript of the call was circulated to a small group of officials, including the national security adviser, deputy national security adviser, members of the National Security Council’s executive secretariat and NSC lawyers
From there, the National Security Council director responsible for Ukraine — Vindman — reviewed the document for accuracy before the document made its way to Bolton and his deputy Charlie Kupperman. At that point, the document would ordinarily have been marked “limited access” and shared on a need-to-know basis.
But within a few days, a National Security Council lawyer — acting on orders from Eisenberg, his boss — directed council officials to move the transcript to the code-word classified system, a former White House official said, even though there was no code-word classified material discussed during the call.
One person familiar with the matter said it was possible Eisenberg ordered the call transcript placed into the codeword system after his initial call with the CIA’s top lawyer to “preserve” the record since he realized it could become a matter of a legal issue. But others familiar with the matter said the move came after officials became aware of the internal concerns and wanted to prevent additional people from reading the document.
White House lawyers initially believed the contents of the complaint would remain within the executive branch and not reach Congress or the public. Several sources said the White House counsel’s office kept a very close hold on the initial general counsel disclosure and the ultimate whistleblower complaint until just a few days before the complaint’s public release, when it became clear it would reach lawmakers.
Those kept in the dark about those items until the days before their release included Mulvaney and the President’s communications aides.
And there is little sign, at least in the call’s immediate aftermath, that the President himself was aware of the scramble ensuing among his underlings to contain the fallout of his conversation. An hour-and-a-half after the call ended, Trump departed the White House alongside his son Eric for an event at the Pentagon, leaving the chaos behind.