WASHINGTON — President Trump has for weeks sought to unmask the whistle-blower who shed light on his Ukraine dealings. But instead aides have fixated on one another: Advisers began a fact-finding review that some fear is a hunt for a scapegoat, according to White House aides and other people familiar with it.
Even as the impeachment inquiry intensifies in Congress, White House lawyers are leading their own review, the people said. They are seeking to understand White House officials’ actions around Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, which is central to the whistle-blower’s allegation that Mr. Trump abused his power.
The lawyers’ inquiry centers on why one of their colleagues, the deputy White House counsel John A. Eisenberg, placed a rough transcript of the call in a computer system typically reserved for the country’s most closely guarded secrets. Mr. Trump later directed that a reconstructed transcript be released amid intensifying scrutiny from House Democrats.
The review shows how quickly the impeachment inquiry escalated tensions in a West Wing already divided over the publication of the transcript, and it appears to be the latest example of administration officials rushing to protect themselves in the Ukraine scandal.
Some officials have expressed fears that the review is intended to assign blame and highlight decisions that helped fuel the impeachment inquiry, the people said. Mr. Eisenberg reacted angrily to suggestions that he is under scrutiny, according to two people told of his response.
Mr. Eisenberg has said he limited access to the transcript over concerns about leaks, according to a person familiar with his actions. He declined through a National Security Council spokesman to comment.
It was not clear who sought the review. The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has encouraged it, and his aides are helping the White House Counsel’s Office, led by Pat Cipollone, the people said. Aides in the two offices have otherwise been at odds since the transcript was released, according to administration officials.
The existence of the review also threatens Mr. Trump’s narrative that his call with Mr. Zelensky was “perfect.” Instead, the review underscores the evidence that he bent foreign policy to his personal advantage by pressing Mr. Zelensky to open investigations that could damage his political opponents.
The review is among multiple efforts inside the White House to learn more about the president’s July 25 call and the events surrounding it, the people said. Other lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office have interviewed staff members about how Mr. Trump’s calls with foreign leaders are handled.
White House officials declined to comment on the review. Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, sought to dismiss the internal concerns and said he would not comment on how the White House handles classified information. The July call was classified as secret before Mr. Trump declassified the rough transcript.
“We released the conversation unredacted showing the whole world the president did nothing wrong,” Mr. Gidley said in a statement.
Lawyers conducting the review have focused on Mr. Eisenberg, a fellow member of the counsel’s office and the National Security Council legal adviser, and his decision to move the reconstructed transcript into a computer system normally used for covert operations, the people said.
Mr. Eisenberg is in a precarious position. The White House has forcefully defended the substance of Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky. Without the president acknowledging any possible wrongdoing, advisers looking to assign blame have turned to another key part of the whistle-blower complaint, the people said: how the transcript of the call was handled.
Mr. Eisenberg learned that National Security Council staff members had concerns about the call but did not consult with more senior White House lawyers or other officials before ordering the transcript moved, according to multiple officials. Some West Wing and other administration officials are now second-guessing his silence.
But Mr. Eisenberg has told others that he did nothing improper or even controversial. He stored the transcript on the most secure computer system to avert leaks, which had been a recurring issue, according to the person familiar with his actions.
Still, the handling of the transcript after the call has emerged as a sharp point of contention within the White House. The whistle-blower criticized the placement of the call records into the highly secure system, casting it as a sign that lawyers knew Mr. Trump’s pressure on Mr. Zelensky was problematic.
Several current and former administration officials said they believe Mr. Eisenberg did nothing wrong by placing the call transcript into the secure system. Officials defending Mr. Eisenberg noted that a number of rough transcripts of Mr. Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, including the Saudi royal family and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, were placed in the most secure system.
But for those calls, aides put security measures put in place ahead of the conversations, including plans to store the transcript securely. In the case of the Zelensky call, Mr. Eisenberg moved to store the call records more securely only after the conversation.
Mr. Eisenberg, one of the few lawyers who has served in the White House since the beginning of the Trump administration, has emerged as a key figure in the events surrounding the call. He was the lawyer to whom Fiona Hill, the former top foreign policy adviser on Europe, reported her concerns that the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and some administration officials were conducting a shadow foreign policy, she told impeachment investigators on Monday.
Mr. Eisenberg also took part in the initial preliminary inquiry into the future whistle-blower’s complaint in early August after the C.I.A.’s top lawyer contacted Mr. Eisenberg and said that an agency employee had raised questions about a call between Mr. Trump and a foreign leader.
Mr. Mulvaney’s role has also come under increased scrutiny. Ms. Hill testified that she and the former national security adviser John R. Bolton believed that Mr. Mulvaney and the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, were trying to bypass them to hijack Ukraine policy.
“I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Mr. Bolton said, according to Ms. Hill’s testimony to congressional investigators.
Mr. Mulvaney has told colleagues that he was unaware of what Mr. Bolton was talking about, according to a person familiar with his comments. Mr. Mulvaney has insisted that his role in the Ukraine matter was limited to setting up the call with Mr. Zelensky, at the urging of Mr. Sondland and Rick Perry, the secretary of energy. Mr. Mulvaney, who did not listen in on the discussion, had a top deputy on the call, who flagged no concerns.
But Mr. Mulvaney was involved in the effort to freeze $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine ahead of the July call. Mr. Trump directed him days ahead of the call to place a hold on the aid.
Mr. Mulvaney has told associates that the administration paused the aid to try to push Ukraine to more robustly fight corruption, not in connection with pressuring Ukraine to uncover dirt on of Mr. Trump’s political rivals. Since releasing the transcript last month, the White House has tried to cast its pressure campaign as itself an anticorruption effort, though to little effect.
Mr. Mulvaney was not involved in the release of the transcript. Current and former administration officials who have sought to protect Mr. Trump from the fallout over the conversation have nonetheless partly faulted Mr. Mulvaney for the call.
No special steps were taken to restrict the number of officials who listened in, allowing some officials who did to express concerns about it to the C.I.A. officer who eventually would compile their accounts into his whistle-blower complaint.
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