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How a president’s call to a foreign leader becomes a memo — and who gets to see it

How does the White House capture a conversation between a president and another foreign leader? And who gets to review that material afterward? For more context on the phone conversation between President Trump and Zelensky, Judy Woodruff talks to Larry Pfeiffer, former senior director of the White House Situation Room.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to take a closer look at the memorandum released by the White House of the phone conversation between President Trump and Ukraine's President Zelensky, I'm joined by Larry Pfeiffer, former senior director of the White House Situation Room during the Obama administration and chief of staff to the director of the CIA during the Bush administration.

    He's currently serving as the director of George Mason University's Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security.

    Larry Pfeiffer, thank you very much for being here.

  • Larry Pfeiffer, Former Senior Director, White House Situation Room:

    Thank you very much for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as somebody who has worked in the White House, in the Situation Room, sat in on a number of phone calls between the president of the United States, leaders of other countries, how normally would a whistle-blower complaint be handled around something like this?

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Oh, gosh, I don't know if there's a normal — a normal really here.

    We have phone conversations that are being transcribed. Then a memorandum is being written to capture that transcript. It can be something as explicit as what we saw today, or it could be something summarizing the conversation.

    So the transcript today, you know, clearly was pretty explicit in what the president was saying. And at one level, you have to applaud the president for putting this very explicit document out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, in your experience in — well, let me just back up for just a second.

    In recording — it's not recorded. There's no audio recording of these conversations.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So there are individuals there taking notes…

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … a®MDNM¯s fast as they can on this conversation.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Yes, they're actually listening to the conversation live, and they're typing furiously on their computers, trying to capture every single word and nuance of the conversation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then what is done with that?

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    So, we have three individuals. They work up three separate transcripts. They then get together and reconcile them into a unified draft.

    That is then provided by the Situation Room to the NSC directorate responsible for the call. In this case, it would have been Europe. And an NSC senior director or director would review that, apply some expertise to perhaps correcting some of the material.

    And then they would ultimately decide in what format that final memo would be. Would it be an explicit transcript or would it be more of a summation? In this case, it looks like they went with the verbatim transcript.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And — clearly. But, again, it wasn't recorded. It was their…

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    No, no, not recorded.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was whatever their notes were.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But how many people, roughly — obviously, things are done differently from one administration to the next.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Roughly, how many people ultimately would have access to that document?

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    So, the document itself, there would be the individuals in the Situation Room. There would be the folks in the directorate. That could be anywhere from one to three or four people in the directorate.

    That memo is then provided to the national security adviser's front office under normal situations. So, there could be a few people there. And then it is provided to the executive secretary of the National Security Council for filing and distribution, so, again, another couple of people.

    And then, depending upon where it is distributed, there could be another handful more people as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then, wearing your hat as someone in that — who has worked in the intelligence community — and we have talked about your experience working in a White House — if — one of those individuals either had to — is the whistle-blower himself or herself or shared that information with someone who has now seen this and decided it was concerning enough to bring it forward.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Right. Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you were just saying a moment ago this is not a normal thing, clearly.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    No, not — I mean, to see something so egregious that one would put his career on the line to do a whistle-blower complaint suggests to me that they have more than just one phone call, and they have some fairly compelling information to provide.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, that's the information that has been — that has been reported out.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We are just now starting to see reaction from members of Congress who have seen — and our Lisa Desjardins mentioned that — who have seen what the whistle-blower complaint is.

    And some of them are saying it's disturbing, including Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Right. I'm not surprised.

    I was fully anticipating that this whistle-blower complaint would be — would be more complete, more — would have more information that will ultimately require additional disclosures.

    Perhaps he reflects conversations that he participated — he or she participated in. Perhaps it reflects e-mails or other documents that relate to what was going on with the Ukraine problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just a very quick question based on your experience in the intelligence community.

    Is it — is it expected that the president, that the White House would know the identity of the whistle-blower?

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    No, the whistle-blower should be being protected by the I.C. inspector general and the intelligence community.

    So the president of the United States shouldn't know the whistle-blower's name, unless the whistle-blower decides they want their name to be disclosed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Larry Pfeiffer, director of the Hayden Center at George Mason University, thank you.

  • Larry Pfeiffer:

    Thank you very much, Judy.

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