WASHINGTON – White House calls to heads of state have been powerful tools of foreign policy, privy to a select few but rarely deemed state secrets – and never before the cause of an impeachment inquiry.
Former top officials said President Donald Trump's call to Ukraine's president July 25 and its aftermath differed from established protocols, from how summaries of the conversation were stored to who listened in. They offered a primer on how presidential communication with world leaders has been handled in the past.
Under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, federal officials are barred from classifying information that is deemed illegal or embarrassing. The order prohibits classifying information to "conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency."
A whistleblower's complaint alleges that White House officials were "directed" to remove electronic records of Trump's phone conversation from a computer system where the material is generally stored. The rough transcript was placed in a highly secure system reserved for classified information pertaining to national security matters.
That move would have required information technology personnel to move it from one classified computer system to another, a process that would have meant more eyes on the document, according to Larry Pfeiffer, who directed the White House situation room in the Obama administration.
"The fact that they made an effort to isolate it is perhaps in itself a wrongdoing," said former CIA director Leon Panetta, who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
"I never had an instance where, after the fact – and this appears to be after the fact – where somebody stops everyone in their tracks and says, 'Whoops, put this in the sensitive one,' " Pfeiffer said. "It appears to me, somebody somewhere, once they read the transcript, found something that was outrageously embarrassing or potentially concerning."
Is such a transfer illegal?
"I don’t think there’s a law out there where you’d send anybody to jail," Pfeiffer said. "But it goes against standards, practices, regulations, executive orders. Putting it in that super-secret system was probably the wrong thing to do."