USA: The White House has restricted access to US President Donald Trump’s phone calls with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to the reports, citing sources familiar with the matter, a transcript of the call with bin Salman was never circulated – an unusual practice for a high-profile conversation. With Putin, access to the transcript was also severely limited, the source said.
It is unclear whether the transcripts were put into the same system as the now-infamous conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Sources told the press that John Eisenberg, the White House deputy counsel for national security affairs and a national security legal adviser, ordered the Zelensky call to be put into a separate highly-classified system usually reserved for ‘code word’ documents which deal with extremely sensitive information such as covert military operations.
Sources claim the call with bin Salman contained no sensitive national security secrets – just like the call with Zelensky. The contents of the call with Putin are not known.
The whistleblower complaint which led to Trump’s impeachment inquiry alleged that the Zelensky case was not the first time these steps were taken “solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive – rather than national security sensitive – information.”
According to the officials, the practice of limiting access to phone calls with foreign leaders began after Trump’s rambling talks with leaders of Australia and Mexico were embarrassingly leaked to the press.
Sam Vinograd, a national security analyst who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, says the idea of putting a common phone call transcript into the code word system is a potential “abuse of power”.
“In my experience you would never move a transcript to the code word system if it does not have any code word terms. If the president is classifying and declassifying stuff he doesn’t want to get out, that is an abuse of power and abuse of the system,” he asserted.
When contacted for comment, White House officials confirmed that the Zelensky call was put into the system at the direction of National Security Council attorneys.
“NSC lawyers directed that the classified document be handled appropriately,” a senior White House official said, without providing further details.
It is unclear whether these newly-discovered transcripts will play any part in the recently announced impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Trump is currently facing an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives, after Democrats asserted that Trump asking for a “favor” from Zelensky was connected to withholding military funds and therefore constituted political extortion. Trump has denied any wrongdoing. Zelensky also commented on the call, saying that “nobody pressed” him. The date for an impeachment vote has not yet been determined.