First, before every call Obama made to Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev or then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, our national security staff prepared background materials and talking points. For Russia calls, I was the lead drafter of these materials, known as “call packages.” But all of these talking points and briefing memos were approved — or, as we used to say, “cleared” — by staff at the NSC.
Judging from the content of the Trump-Zelensky call, Trump was not reading talking points. No one on our team ever would have prepared a call package prompting Obama to ask for a personal favor that would help him win reelection. I also doubt that Trump’s NSC staff would have written or cleared such a talking point for their boss.
Talking points for an Obama call with a Ukrainian leader after 2014 also would have denounced Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine and stressed U.S. support for Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy. My guess is that Trump’s NSC professional staff would have written similar talking points. Trump delivered none of these messages.
Second, before every call Obama had with foreign leaders, we conducted a “pre-brief” in the Oval Office. I considered these briefings to be one of the most important parts of my White House job. In these sessions, we discussed in detail the goals of the call — the U.S. national interests we were seeking to advance. Obama wanted concrete outcomes to be pursued in these conversations.
Third, I listened to every call that Obama made with Putin, Medvedev and other foreign leaders related to my portfolio. I did so from the phone near the fireplace in the Oval Office, while Obama was on another line at his desk. For important calls, we had several senior NSC officials listening from the Oval.
Trump made the call with Zelensky from his residence, presumably without any NSC staffers present, making it easier for him to make his blatantly personal and political request of the Ukrainian president. That favor would have been harder to propose with national security staff in the room.
Fourth, on substance, there is nothing unusual about quid pro quos in presidential calls. Diplomacy often is about asking your counterpart to do something for your country in return for something you can deliver. We often dangled a meeting with the president — especially a “bilat” in the Oval Office — as an inducement to get leaders to act favorably or cooperate with us. We might also offer economic assistance, weapons sales or presidential visits in order to obtain desired actions from other leaders. That’s normal diplomacy.
Fifth, after a transcription of a call was produced by the White House Situation Room, our bosses then decided who needed to see a copy of the memorandum (usually a select group of Cabinet officials). If you were tasked with doing something in the call — as Attorney General William P. Barr was in the Trump-Zelensky call — you most certainly saw the memorandum or heard personally from the White House chief of staff or national security adviser.
Trump (or his aides) did something extraordinary by imposing such a high level of classification on the Zelensky call, thereby denying access for even Cabinet members and most White House staff. Our calls were classified as “Secret.” I don’t ever remember a call being classified as “Top Secret,” let alone using the even higher, compartmentalized classification deployed by the Trump NSC.
I also would “read out” these calls verbally to members of the Interagency Policy Committee (IPC) on Russia that I chaired. IPC members included senior officials from all the major departments working on Russia policy, including State, Defense, the CIA, Treasury, and the office of the director of national intelligence. The officials needed these “read-outs” to make sure their activities were consistent with the presidential policies and preferences.
This practice appears to have been retired during the Trump era. Instead, Trump deployed someone outside the government — his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani — to conduct diplomacy with the Ukrainian government while others inside his own administration were kept in the dark. That never happened in the Obama era — and it should never happen again in any administration.