clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
President Donald Trump speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 24, 2019.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Filed under:

The Trump-Ukraine whistleblower complaint, explained

Everything we know so far suggests the whistleblower’s account was right on target.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The whistleblower complaint that suddenly placed Trump in the greatest danger of impeachment of his presidency so far has now been revealed.

The key allegation is stated up front: “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote, in a letter dated August 12, 2019. (You can read it at this link.)

The well-written, detailed, and footnoted complaint alleges a months-long effort by President Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani to pressure the government of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Some parts of that pressure campaign played out in public view, and others of which happened behind closed doors.

The centerpiece of the complaint is the whistleblower’s recounting of what transpired during Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But it also describes an apparent White House cover-up to hide records of that call, and lays out other troubling events that occurred both before and after that call.

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is sworn.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is sworn in before he testifies at a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, on September 26, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The whistleblower admitted that they were “not a direct witness to most of the events described,” but were rather “informed” of these various facts by “more than half a dozen U.S. officials” in the course of their work. But the whistleblower’s information appears to be quite good — on Wednesday, the White House released an internal document summarizing the Trump and Zelensky call that closely matches the whistleblower’s description.

The biggest new revelation is the whistleblower’s allegation that, per White House officials, White House lawyers “directed” them to remove the word-for-word transcript of the Trump and Zelensky call from the usual computer system. Instead, they placed it in a separate computer system reserved for very sensitive intelligence information — in an apparent effort to prevent word of what actually happened on the call from getting out.

The overall takeaway is that, based on what has already emerged, many if not most of the whistleblower’s allegations were right on target. Trump did try to get a foreign leader to investigate his potential opponent in the 2020 election. The questions remaining are about how wide-ranging this effort was, and what the White House did, if anything, to cover it up. (As well as, of course, whether all this merits impeachment.)

Who is the whistleblower, and what does this complaint look like?

We don’t know who this whistleblower is — only that he or she is a member of the US intelligence community. But, judging by the complaint, the person appears to regularly discuss policy toward Ukraine with other US government officials, and hears quite a lot about internal deliberations within the White House and State Department on this subject.

The complaint itself is nine pages long. It’s addressed to Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees, but was submitted to the inspector general for the intelligence community, in accordance with a law governing intelligence whistleblower complaints.

Interestingly, the whistleblower appears to have anticipated an attempt to suppress the complaint. The complaint was written so that the first seven pages would be unclassified, with classified information only included in a separate two-page “enclosure.” Early on, the whistleblower mentions the possibility that the administration could try to classify more information retroactively — and says in that case, it would be “incumbent upon the classifying authority to explain why.”

To the best of my knowledge, the entirety of this statement is unclassified when separated from the classified enclosure. I have endeavored to apply the classification standards outlined in Executive Order (EO) 13526 and to separate out information that I know or have reason to believe is classified for national security purposes.

• If a classification marking is applied retroactively, I believe it is incumbent upon the classifying authority to explain why such a marking was applied, and to which specific information it pertains.

Indeed, the administration did end up trying to block the complaint from being given to Congress, as was seemingly required by law. But the inspector general for the intelligence community went to Congress himself, and the resulting outcry was so great that the administration agreed to release the complaint this week.

In the end, the version of the complaint declassified and publicly released Thursday was almost entirely unredacted. That includes that two-page classified enclosure — except for one brief section and its accompanying footnote or footnotes. Those are blacked out and marked as related to “classified intelligence community reporting and analysis.”

The centerpiece of the complaint is a description of Trump’s July call with Zelensky

After that brief introduction, the whistleblower launches into a detailed description of Trump’s now-infamous July 25 call with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

The whistleblower did not hear the call or review the transcript, but he or she did “receive a readout” of it and talk to numerous White House officials about it — and those White House officials were “deeply disturbed” about what happened, because they had “witnessed” Trump “abuse his office for personal gain.”

The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call. They told me that there was already a “discussion ongoing” with White House lawyers about how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials’ retelling, that they had witnessed the President abuse his office for personal gain.

Some Trump defenders have seized on the whistleblower’s lack of firsthand knowledge about the call — but the criticism doesn’t really hold water, since the White House released their own internal document summarizing the call Wednesday, and it closely matches the whistleblower’s description.

The whistleblower alleges what we now know from that document to be true:

  • Trump “pressured” Zelensky to “initiate or continue an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden”
  • Trump also pressured Zelensky to investigate the origins of the FBI’s Russian interference investigation, including by making a bizarre claim that Ukraine has a Democratic email server
  • And Trump told Zelensky to meet or speak with both his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr, “multiple times in tandem.”

Again, all this is not even disputed at this point. Here, for instance, is Trump requesting Zelensky work with Barr to investigate Biden and his son, per the (non-verbatim) official summary of the call.

The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that 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... It sounds horrible to me.

So the whistleblower was on target here. Similarly, the (again, non-verbatim) call summary shows Trump asked Zelensky to talk to Barr or Giuliani at least five separate times regarding these investigations.

  • “I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it”
  • “Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man... and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General...”
  • “Whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great”
  • “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call”
  • “I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call”

But the whistleblower’s complaint is broader than just one phone call — it goes on to make allegations of an apparent White House cover-up around the call, and then it tries to put Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine in broader context.

President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands.
President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands during a meeting in New York, on September 25, 2019.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The complaint also alleges a White House cover-up

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

Specifically, he or she says, White House officials say they were “directed” by White House lawyers “to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to Cabinet-level officials.”

Instead, the transcript was placed in a “separate” electronic system intended for “especially sensitive” material. The goal here appears to have been to ensure that the transcript didn’t circulate widely within the government. But, per the whistleblower, concerns were voiced internally that this was an “abuse” of the system, designed to protect Trump politically. And according to White House officials, the whistleblower complains, this was “not the first time” the system was used in this way to shield a politically damaging “Presidential transcript.”

According to multiple White House officials I spoke with, the transcript of the President’s call with President Zelenskyy was placed into a computer system managed directly by the National Security Council (NSC) Directorate for Intelligence Programs. This is a standalone computer system reserved for codeword-level intelligence information, such as covert action. According to information I received from White House officials, some officials voiced concerns internally that this would be an abuse of the system and was not consistent with the responsibilities of the Directorate for Intelligence Programs. According to White House officials I spoke with, this was “not the first time” under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.

One question here is whether the “official word-for-word transcript” of the call the whistleblower is referring to is the same call summary document that was released on Wednesday by the White House. That document is written like a transcript, but it has a note stating it’s not a verbatim transcript, and also contains ellipses in certain sections. (The White House has said these are meant to be conversational pauses.)

So there are two possibilities. One is that the whistleblower was being inexact in referring to a “word-for-word” transcript, and we already have the document in question. The other is that there is still an exact word-for-word transcript hidden away somewhere. (The released summary document was allegedly “developed with assistance from voice recognition software,” so apparently there was audio used at some point.) Either is possible, and it would be good to find out which is the case.

Beyond that, there are naturally more questions to be asked about which White House officials were involved in this apparent cover-up — and whether there were in fact other times Trump call transcripts were hidden away for political reasons, as the complaint alleges.

The whistleblower also tries to put Trump’s actions toward Ukraine in a broader context

Finally, the complaint spends several pages laying out the context for Trump’s call with Zelensky — telling a damning story, based partly on public events and partly on nonpublic information, about a concerted pressure effort.

The whistleblower traces the saga back to March 2019, when Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, made a series of allegations to an American conservative journalist, John Solomon of The Hill. These allegations were about the two main topics Giuliani wanted to investigate — how the FBI’s Russia investigation got started, and the Biden family’s Ukraine dealings.

General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko attends a parliament session.
General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko attends a parliament session in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 22, 2018.
Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The whistleblower suggests these allegations were garbage. “Mr. Lutsenko has no legal training and has been widely criticized in Ukraine for politicizing criminal probes and using his tenure as Prosecutor General to protect corrupt Ukrainian officials,” he or she writes. The implication is that because Lutsenko was about to lose his job as prosecutor general — due Zelensky’s lead in the polls — he was making up nonsense to try and get the Trump administration to help him keep his job.

But all this was exactly what Giuliani wanted to hear. As the whistleblower chronicles, Giuliani bragged repeatedly in media appearances that these Ukrainian investigations were bombshell news. Unfortunately for him, though, Zelensky won the election — and he had pledged to fire Lutsenko as prosecutor general.

That’s the background for Trump and Giuliani’s effort to put the squeeze on Zelensky, and demand his administration keep pursuing the investigations that could help Trump politically. Per the whistleblower:

  • “Multiple U.S. officials told me that the Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelenskyy would depend on whether Zelenskyy showed willingness to ‘play ball’ on the issues publicly aired by Mr. Lutsenko and Mr. Giuliani.”
  • Multiple US officials “were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decisionmaking process to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the President.”
  • Around May 14, Trump instructed Pence to “cancel his planned travel to Ukraine” to attend Zelensky’s inauguration, according to US officials.

The complaint also mentions — briefly — the questions surrounding Trump’s decision to block US military aid to Ukraine. The whistleblower didn’t know many details about this, but mentions the move as potentially connected to Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelensky.

On 18 July, an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official informed Departments and Agencies that the President “earlier that month” had issued instructions to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Neither OMB nor the NSC staff knew why this instruction had been issued. During interagency meetings on 23 July and 26 July, OMB officials again stated explicitly that the instruction to suspend this assistance had come directly from the President, but they still were unaware of a policy rationale. As of early August, I heard from U.S. officials that some Ukrainian officials were aware that U.S. aid might be in jeopardy, but I do not know how or when they learned of it.

The document summarizing Trump and Zelensky’s July call revealed that the topic of US military aid for Ukraine was in fact brought up in their discussion — right before Trump asked Zelensky for a “favor.”

Finally, the whistleblower adds some further details on what happened after that July 25 call. Specifically, on the next day, two US State Department officials — Kurt Volker, the special representative for Ukraine negotiations, and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU — met Zelensky and advised him how to “navigate” Trump’s demands. The whistleblower also says that Giuliani met a Zelensky adviser in Madrid about a week later, something that was not public at the time (but has since been confirmed).

The whistleblower also describes an August 9 public statement from Trump to reporters, in which he called Zelensky a “reasonable guy” and suggested he would be invited to the White House soon. And that appears to have been the final straw — because he or she filed this complaint just three days later.

Listen to Today, Explained

The White House released a record of President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky, then went on the defensive.

Looking for a quick way to keep up with the never-ending news cycle? Host Sean Rameswaram will guide you through the most important stories at the end of each day.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

World Politics

The “apocalyptic” humanitarian situation in Gaza, captured by one quote

Future Perfect

Qubit by qubit, the quantum computers of tomorrow are coming into being


How the keffiyeh became a symbol of the Palestinian cause

View all stories in Politics