Former White House Official Says Secret Trump-Putin Conversations Might Be Hidden to Save President Embarrassment

A former senior White House Situation Room official has warned that President Donald Trump must not use top secret national intelligence infrastructure to hide his own crimes or embarrassment, as more details of the "Ukrainegate" scandal emerge.

Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief of staff to CIA director Michael Hayden, told Newsweek that recent revelations indicate that the president's actions were at least unethical, and perhaps even illegal.

A whistleblower complaint filed by an anonymous intelligence official alleges that an August phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was stored on a highly restricted "codeword" server, in an effort to hide possible abuses of power by Trump.

The whistleblower alleged that Trump used the call "to solicit interference" from Ukraine in the upcoming 2020 election, in the form of a corruption investigation against rival 2020 candidate Joe Biden.

The whistleblower complaint has now snowballed into an impeachment investigation against the president, with Democrats keen to uncover any suggestion that Trump solicited a foreign nation to interfere in the 2020 race.

After the complaint was revealed, the White House released a memo of the call consisting of an abridged transcript of Trump's conversation with Zelensky.

The president might have hoped it would ease the pressure on him, but actually the document sparked outrage among opposition lawmakers and accelerated calls for an impeachment investigation, subsequently announced by House Speaker Representative Nancy Pelosi.

Pfeiffer explained that releasing a memo detailing a call with another world leader was a highly unusual step.

"I can't think of a time when a presidential transcript [of a] phone call was released other than in some archival historical sense, years and years and years later," he explained. "So on one level you have to give Trump credit for putting it out there!"

But Pfeiffer stressed that the content of the memo was highly troubling. "It appears we have a conversation where the president is conducting behavior that's unethical to our values, and possibly even our laws. So there is a need for transparency there, to the American people."

Aides seemingly knew the call was sensitive, and perhaps even damaging for Trump. Officials moved records of the call to the codeword server, restricting access to the minimum number of people possible.

Pfeiffer said there was "nothing at all" in the released memo that would warrant its storage on the codeword server.

He explained that the "extra secure enclave that we have created was intended for protecting covert action planning and execution information."

Counter-terrorism operations such as the Osama bin Laden raid or highly sensitive diplomatic initiatives like the early stages of the Iran nuclear deal may be suitable for storage on the server, Pfeiffer suggested. But he stressed that the system should never be used to hide a conversation that may be personally damaging for the president.

"It would be totally inappropriate to put something in there just because you want to restrict its protect the president from either conduct of illegal behavior, unethical behavior, or out of embarrassment," Pfeiffer explained.

He added that reading the released material has made him question "how much of this was really about people trying to protect the president."

The full transcript of the Trump-Zelensky conversation has not been released. But Pfeiffer was skeptical regarding suggestions that the excluded parts of the call warranted its inclusion on the codeword server.

"I think if that were the case then you would have seen those very traditional black bars [that are commonly used to obscure redacted text]. "If they're going to fully disclose as much as they did, then go ahead and put black bars to say that there was even more secret conversation going on," Pfeiffer continued.

"I think they released a pretty darn complete transcript, with the exception of editing to make the language flow more smoothly and make them sound more elegant."

Other conversations between Trump and world leaders have also been highly restricted, including calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, CNN reported. It is not clear whether these were also stored on the codeword server.

Pfeiffer said he could understand why certain Trump conversations with Salman may be highly restricted, but could not understand why this would be the case with Putin. "Conversations with Putin probably fall more into the category of what we saw with the Ukrainian phone call," he explained.

Though Pfeiffer stressed it was impossible to know for sure, he suggested that officials might restrict access to such transcripts "to protect against some kind of inadvertent disclosure of the president having conversations that run counter to the findings by the intelligence community, and the general consensus that the Russians did actually interfere in our election."

But, "without knowing the context entirely," Pfeiffer said it is "hard to judge" whether restricting access to conversations with Putin—whether by using the codeword server or other means—was appropriate or not.

The details of such secretive conversations are now in House Intelligence Committee Chairman Representative Adam Schiff's crosshairs.

On Sunday, the Massachusetts Democrat told NBC's Meet the Press that the "paramount need here is to protect the national security of the United States and see whether in the conversations with other world leaders—and in particular with Putin—that the president was also undermining our security in a way that he thought would personally benefit his campaign."

"If those conversations with Putin or with other world leaders are sequestered in that same electronic file that is meant for covert action, not meant for this, if there's an effort to hide those and cover those up, yes we're determined to find out," Schiff added.

Pfeiffer added that, whatever the outcome of the impeachment investigation, he hopes that the impartiality of the Situation Room remains untarnished. "When things are going wrong, they're the guys who do make that call at three o'clock in the morning to wake up the president," Pfeiffer explained.

Its politicization, he warned, would be "a very bad thing for this country."

Donald Trump, Ukraine, Russia, transcript, memo
President Donald Trump speaks during a reception in the East Room at the White House on September 27, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images/Getty

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts