A mysterious exchange between Trump and a foreign leader is Washington’s latest obsession. Here’s what is actually going on.


  • A member of the intelligence community in mid-August filed a whistleblower complaint that reportedly has to do with a promise Trump made to a foreign leader.
  • The matter has raised concerns about national security, respect for congressional oversight, and the integrity of the US electoral system. 
  • Trump on September 25 released notes from a phone call between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that appear to confirm reports that Trump repeatedly pressed Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden after discussing military aid to Ukraine.
  • The full, declassified complaint was released on September 26. 
  • Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have launched a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A whistleblower complaint filed by a member of the intelligence community has sent shockwaves through Washington, as it alleges President Donald Trump attempted to use “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.”

After a tense tug-of-war with House Democrats, the Trump administration released the complaint to a select group of lawmakers on Wednesday and then the public on Thursday.

Read more:‘DEFCON 1’: US officials are rocked by a whistleblower complaint involving Trump’s talks with a foreign leader

Beyond electoral concerns, the convoluted ordeal is linked to broader tensions between Trump and the intelligence community, and his tendency to defy presidential norms in a manner that could jeopardize national security. 

Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected in May, in a July 25 phone call.
  • The Post reported that Trump ordered a hold on a $400 million military aid package to Ukraine “for at least a week” before his call with Zelensky.
  • Roughly two weeks after the call, on August 12, an intelligence official lodged a whistleblower complaint against Trump that centered around communications between him and a foreign leader. 
  • The whistleblower lodged the complaint because the person was deeply troubled by a phone call Trump had with a foreign leader and, in particular, a “promise” Trump made during the call, according to the report.
  • The Post later reported, citing two people familiar with the matter, that the complaint “centers on Ukraine.”
  • The Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG), Michael Atkinson, determined after a preliminary review of the whistleblower’s complaint that it was credible and of “urgent concern.”
  • Two weeks after receiving the complaint, Atkinson submitted it to acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire.
  • Federal law requires the DNI to communicate or transmit complaints of “urgent concern” to Congress within seven days, but Maguire did not do this.
  • Atkinson then reported the complaint to the Senate and House intelligence committees in a letter on September 9, but did not offer specific details or the substance of the complaint. 
  • On September 10, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, requested a full, unredacted copy of the complaint, the ICIG’s findings related to the matter, and all records connected to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) involvement, “including any and all correspondence with other Executive Branch actors including the White House.”
  • Trump released the military aid package to Ukraine on September 12.
  • The ODNI officially declined the committee’s request on September 13 and said Maguire was withholding the complaint in part because it “involves confidentially and potentially privileged communications by persons outside the Intelligence Community.”
  • On September 13, Schiff subpoenaed the acting DNI to turn over the complaint. He said the acting DNI was required by law to turn over the complaint to congressional intelligence committees but refused to do so.  
  • Schiff also said Maguire had consulted the Justice Department about the complaint, which is a major departure from the norm. 
  • Schiff raised concerns as to whether the ODNI “together with the Department of Justice and possibly the White House, are engaged in an unlawful effort to protect the President and conceal from the Committee information related to his possible ‘serious or flagrant’ misconduct, abuse of power, or violation of law.”
  • On September 15, Schiff told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that the acting DNI told the House Intelligence Committee that he was instructed not to turn over the whistleblower’s complaint by a “higher authority.”
  • In a letter to Schiff on September 17, ODNI general counsel Jason Klitenic said the agency overruled the ICIG and determined the complaint didn’t meet the definition of “urgent concern” under the law. 
  • “This complaint, however, concerned conduct by someone outside the Intelligence Community and did not relate to any ‘intelligence activity’ under the DNI’s supervision,” Klitenic added. For that reason, after consulting with the Justice Department, the agency concluded it was not required to forward the complaint to the intelligence committees.
  • Schiff had requested that Maguire appear before the committee on September 19, “absent compliance with the subpoena,” to explain why he wouldn’t turn over the complaint, but Klitenic in his letter said the acting DNI “is not available on such short notice.”
  • On September 17, Atkinson wrote a letter to the intelligence committees that said he and Maguire were at “at an impasse,” and added that the whistleblower complaint “not only falls within the DNI’s jurisdiction but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.”
  • House Democrats are investigating whether Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have been attempting to persuade Ukraine to aid Trump’s 2020 reelection bid by coercing “the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity.” As part of this, Democrats have requested the full transcript and a list of participants in the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky.
  • The ICIG, in a closed-door briefing on September 19, told the House Intelligence Committee that the complaint was concerned with “multiple actions,” CNN reported, citing sources familiar with the briefing. 
  • CNN also reported it had learned from three sources familiar with the matter that the White House has been involved in advising the acting DNI against sharing the whistleblower complaint. Schiff, however, has signaled he does not know if the White House is involved.
  • “We do know that the Department of Justice has been involved in the decision to withhold that information from Congress,” Schiff said on September 19. “We do not know — because we cannot get an answer to the question — about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress.”
  • Giuliani got into a shouting match with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on September 19 over the whistleblower complaint and related topics, in which he offered contradictory remarks on whether he asked Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. 
  • After the interview, Giuliani tweeted: “A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job. Maybe if Obama did that the Biden Family wouldn’t have bilked millions from Ukraine and billions from China; being covered up by a Corrupt Media.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reported on September 20 that Trump repeatedly pushed Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, over their activities in Ukraine. A person familiar with the matter said they didn’t believe Trump offered any “quid-pro-quo” for the Ukrainian president’s cooperation.
  • The Post reported that the military aid package Trump released was not discussed in the July call, according to a source “familiar with the contents of the exchange.”
  • The Post’s report also said White House counsel Pat Cipollone has been involved in the matter “since shortly after the whistleblower action surfaced.” Cipollone helped identify legal obstacles to sharing information that could harm Trump politically, according to The Post, which suggests the White House played a more direct role in blocking the complaint from being released to Congress than was previously reported. 
  • On September 22, Trump acknowledged he spoke to Zelensky about Biden and his son in the July phone call. “We had a great conversation,” Trump told reporters. “The conversation I had was largely congratulatory. It was largely corruption — all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.”
  • Trump on September 24 took to Twitter and said he planned on releasing the transcript of his call with Zelensky the next day. 
  • Trump tweeted: “I am currently at the United Nations representing our Country, but have authorized the release tomorrow of the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine. You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call. No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo! This is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”
  • The Washington Post on September 24 reported that Trump’s aides tried to hold off the July 25 phone call between him and Zelensky because they were concerned he would use it to pressure Zelensky to investigate Biden. 
  • The White House released a summary of the phone call between Trump and Zelensky on September 25. The notes from the call appear to confirm reports that Trump repeatedly pressed Zelensky to investigate Biden after discussing military aid to Ukraine.
  • The whistleblower complaint was delivered to members of Congress on the intelligence committees on the afternoon of September 25.
  • The full, declassified whistleblower complaint was publicly released on September 26. The complaint, which focused on the Ukraine call, alleges “Trump has used the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.”
  • The complaint focused heavily on Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son and said that White House officials were “deeply disturbed” by the July 25 call and were worried they’d witnessed the president “abuse his office for personal gain.”
  • The complaint also says that senior White House officials tried to “lock down” all records the call, especially the transcript, and that officials told the whistleblower that they were “directed” by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system they’re usually stored in

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • We don’t know who the whistleblower is or what department or agency they’re from — the CIA, NSA, FBI, etc. —  and the ICIG is protecting their identity. 

What Trump is saying: 

  • Trump has denied he said anything inappropriate and downplayed the significance of the allegations, and has sent out multiple tweets to that effect. 

—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2019

  • Trump on September 20 said the whistleblower was “highly partisan,” providing no evidence to support the assertion. 
  • Trump later said he didn’t know who the whistleblower was and defended his conversation with the unnamed foreign leader.
  • “I don’t know the identity of the whistleblower. I just hear it’s a partisan person, meaning it comes out from another party,” Trump said. “It was a totally appropriate conversation. It was actually a beautiful conversation.”
  • Trump on September 24 acknowledged that he moved to withhold military aid from Ukraine not long before his phone call with Zelensky. He said he did so over concerns European countries weren’t paying their fair share in terms of providing aid to Ukraine.
  • But on September 23, Trump seemed to suggest that corruption was his main concern when it came to giving money to Ukraine. He said, “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country you think is corrupt? One of the reasons [Zelensky] got elected is he was going to stop corruption, so it’s very important that on occasion you speak to somebody about corruption.”
  • Trump continued to defend himself and his phone call with Zelensky as the White House released a summary of it. On September 25, he tweeted, “Will the Democrats apologize after seeing what was said on the call with the Ukrainian President? They should, a perfect call — got them by surprise!”

What Democratic leaders are saying:

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on September 24 announced that Congress was launching a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump, which is directly tied to the whistleblower complaint and related Ukraine scandal.
  • “The times have found us. The actions taken to date by the President have seriously violated the Constitution. It is for this reason that the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry,” Pelosi said.

Why this is such a big deal:

  • It’s out of the ordinary for a member of the intelligence community to lodge a formal whistleblower complaint about a sitting president.
  • The unprecedented nature of the situation prompted a former CIA official to tell Insider it’s “equivalent to an imminent threat” in the intelligence community, adding: “DEFCON 1.”
  • “To be in this line of work and then to file a formal complaint against the sitting president and the commander in chief based on something he said — something that was so deeply alarming — that’s an impossible situation to be in,” one FBI agent who works in counterintelligence told Insider.
  • Trump has been at odds with the intelligence community from the start (he’s often referred to it as part of the “deep state”), and his freewheeling approach to the presidency has been viewed by critics as a threat to national security. 
  • This is yet another example of the Trump administration seeking to undermine Congress’ oversight authority, which is an important part of the government’s system of checks and balances. 
  • If Trump and his allies have been working with a foreign government to influence the 2020 election, that’s an extremely serious matter that would represent an assault on the electoral and democratic process in the US. 

What happens next?:

  • Schiff has called Maguire to testify at an open hearing on September 26.
  • Schiff has also threatened to sue the Trump administration to gain access to the complaint if necessary. 
  • Some reports indicate the White House working on a plan to release the whistleblower complaint, but that it will be redacted.
  • Read more:
  • Read the full declassified whistleblower complaint linked to a phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine
  • Here’s what’s in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump withdrew from, sparking a crisis that’s led to the brink of war
  • Trump’s new national security adviser is a ‘nice guy’, but poorly equipped for one of the toughest jobs in the White House, sources say
  • Trump admits he doesn’t know who the US spy agency whistleblower is after dismissing them as ‘partisan.’ He also defended his ‘beautiful conversation’ with a foreign leader

Donald Trump
Michael Atkinson
joseph maguire

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