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Anatomy of the phone call now imperiling Trump's presidency

WASHINGTON — There were dozens of ears listening to President Donald Trump’s 30-minute phone call with the leader of Ukraine that is at the center of a House impeachment inquiry, and as many eyes that saw what he said.

White House staffers, working in the secure, soundproof Situation Room in the West Wing basement, listened in and chronicled the conversation. National Security Council personnel edited a memo written about the call. White House lawyers, according to a government whistleblower, directed that the memo be uploaded into a highly restricted classified computer network. And there were the staffers whose keystrokes on a computer made that happen.

They represent a universe of people, little known outside their vital circle of national security officials, who can either support or disavow the whistleblower’s account. Their roles could well become more public as the impeachment investigation unfolds and Congress seeks additional witnesses.Some staffers involved with the call still work at the White House; others have left. But what was thought to be a routine conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy turned into anything but that, when Trump asked him to investigate Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election and the activities of Democratic political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

30 minutes that changed the Trump presidencyBy the time staffers in the Situation Room got the president of Ukraine on the phone at 9:03 a.m., Trump had just finished firing off tweets claiming complete vindication from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony the day before about the Russia investigation. On the call, Trump was first to speak. He showered the 41-year-old Ukrainian, a novice politician and former comedian, with praise following his party’s victory in parliamentary elections. Zelenskiy chatted about how he wanted to “drain the swamp” in Kyiv and how he wished the European Union would provide more financial support. He told Trump that Ukraine was ready to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States.

The next 10 words that came out of Trump’s mouth — “I would like you to do us a favor, though” — are what triggered the House impeachment inquiry that has imperiled his presidency.

Trump asked Zelenskiy to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to look into Biden and his son, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Trump says it was an innocent, “perfect” call. But some White House staffers, worried that Trump seemed to be asking Ukraine for dirt on Biden, sounded alarms. They suggested the memorandum of the call — “telcon” for short — be transferred into a restricted server, usually reserved for documents about covert operations.

Before the callThis call, as well as others Trump has had with foreign leaders, was unusual in other ways, too. In past administrations, top foreign policy officials routinely briefed a president in person right before a call and provided written materials as well.

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul worked at the NSC during the Obama administration and helped write briefs to prepare for dozens of calls with Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin.

“Judging from the content of the Trump-Zelenskiy call, Trump was not reading talking points,” McFaul said. “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.”

One individual with firsthand knowledge of how the Trump calls with foreign leaders are handled said the president “hates” such “pre-briefs” and frequently has refused to do them. Trump doesn’t like written background materials either, preferring to handle the calls himself, often in the morning from the residence. Occasionally, while on the phone with foreign heads of state, Trump has handed the receiver to his daughter, Ivanka Trump, so she can talk with the leader, according to this individual.

The person said a six-page pre-brief with attachments was once prepared for Trump before a call to a foreign leader. But that turned out to be too long, as did a single-page version. Preparing pre-brief note cards that offered about three talking points for Trump to make on a call was the norm, according to this person, who feared retribution for describing this process and spoke on condition of anonymity.The individual said that when Trump is done with the note cards, he often rips them up and tosses them in a burn bag. Staff who handle records have had to retrieve the burn bags from the residence, put the papers out on a table and tape them back together to preserve them as official presidential records, this person said.

Run of the millCalls between a president and a foreign leader typically start with U.S. intelligence officers detailed to the White House gathering in the Situation Room, a process that has been in place for decades, according to two people familiar with the operation in the Trump White House and past administrations. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss how Trump’s calls with foreign heads of state are handled.

During the Ukraine call, several others listened in. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Keith Kellogg, national security adviser for Vice President Mike Pence, were on the call. It’s unclear if they were at the White House or listened in on “drop” lines, secure hookups top officials can use from outside the White House.

Others who typically would have listened in would have been the president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, or his deputy, Charles Kupperman, who have both left the White House; the NSC’s director of Russia and Europe, who currently is Tim Morrison; the NSC’s Ukraine expert; and possibly someone from White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s office.

Lawyers who handle NSC issues include John Eisenberg and his deputy, Michael Ellis. It’s unclear what, if any, role Ellis played, but the former counsel for the House Intelligence Committee has been in the spotlight before.

The New York Times reported in March 2017 that he allowed his former boss, the then-committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., to review classified material at the White House, seeking to bolster Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped during the 2016 campaign on the orders of the Obama administration. The intelligence reports consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about trying to develop contacts in the inner circle of then President-elect Trump. The report was not confirmed by The Associated Press.

The NSC declined to confirm who was on the call.

Down in the Situation Room, several others would have been listening. One person monitors the call to make sure the line is not interrupted. Others are tasked with documenting what is said. No audio recordings are made. The memorandum of the call, the telcon, which the White House has released, is the closest thing to a word-for-word transcript that is produced and is the official presidential record of the conversation.

“When I got to the Situation Room and my predecessor explained this incredibly inefficient process that we use, I had a lot of questions,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a 30-year U.S. intelligence veteran who managed the Situation Room during the Obama years. “I said ‘Why don’t we just record the call and write a transcript based on that?’”

Pfeiffer said his predecessor told him that the White House stopped taping presidential calls in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon recorded 3,700 hours of conversations, transcripts of which were used by Watergate investigators and during impeachment hearings that followed.

Pfeiffer said White House lawyers finally approved the idea of having a duty officer, wearing a headset, sit in a separate room, and repeat what was said on the call into voice-to-text software — again without creating any audio recording.

Individuals familiar with Trump White House procedure say one Situation Room staffer, using voice-to-text software, repeats each word the president says and another listens and repeats what the foreign leader says. The software turns the words they repeat into text and a rough draft of the telcon is produced.That draft is given to subject matter specialists on the NSC, who edit the draft for accuracy. Each draft is separately preserved. After it’s finalized, it’s turned over to the national security adviser — Bolton, at the time — or the deputy, who was Kupperman, for their approval. White House lawyers also play a role in approving NSC documents.

After that, the telcon is given back to staffers tasked with preserving the document as a presidential record.

Whistleblower sounds offSomewhere during this sequence, people privy to the call questioned whether Trump was pressuring the Ukrainian leader to investigate the Bidens. Trump has denied that he did and publicly released the telcon recounting what was said on the call.

He released it after a whistleblower, a CIA officer, filed a complaint about the call with the intelligence community’s inspector general. “In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to lock down” all records of the phone call, the whistleblower wrote. “This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”

The unidentified whistleblower — one of two who have come forward — said White House lawyers directed that the telcon be taken off a computer server where classified documents on foreign leader calls are normally kept. They directed it be transferred to a computer network with restricted access for documents about covert operations or other highly sensitive information. The telcon, which was classified as secret, did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.

One of the two people familiar with how foreign leader calls are handled in the Trump White House said putting a document classified only as “secret” into a server holding very highly classified information is not against any rule, but is a means of “leak prevention.”

That person also said it wasn’t common practice to put telcons into the more restrictive server, but that around the same time Bolton became national security adviser in the spring of 2018, it became standard not to share the telcons with the State Department, the national intelligence director and the Pentagon.

Those officials were told that if they wanted to see them, they could read them the next time they were at the White House, the individual said.


Local
Longview ISD districtwide charter meetings attempt to clarify plans

Editor's note: The final town hall about Longview ISD's districtwide charter initiative has been moved to the Longview ISD Education Support Center at 1301 E. Young St. 

After three of four planned town hall-style meetings about converting the rest of Longview ISD’s campuses to a private charter school system, two things have become clear: Longview ISD has learned parents and others still have confusion and concerns about the idea, and patrons have learned there are still questions the district can’t answer.

Parents’ concerns include what some see as a loss of choice if the district converts all its campuses to offer the same programs, continues its Montessori-only preschool and Kindergarten plan, and doesn’t increase transportation opportunities.

Among questions the district has struggled to answer is what beyond additional state funding the change will bring, how that additional funding will be spent, and exactly how budgeting and other governance will be accomplished under two charter boards overseen by the district board.

The final planned meeting is set for 6 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Longview ISD Education Support Center, but board President Ginia Northcutt said after this past week’s meeting the board will plan more for next semester.

Here’s a look at some questions and answers that have come from the first three sessions.

QUESTION: Why are public schools being converted to private charters?

ANSWER: Senate Bill 1882, passed by the Legislature in 2017, allows public school districts to partner with an outside entity to run campuses.

The law incentivizes districts to hand over management of certain schools to a partner organization in exchange for additional state funding. Districts with chronically underperforming schools also get a temporary break from harsh state penalties.

Legislative opponents argued the law was intended to facilitate expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed, at the expense of traditional schools that compete with them for money and students.

But Longview ISD, like many districts across the state, is not partnering with a charter school. Instead, it has partnered with a private nonprofit organization that it created and staffed. That allows the district to reap the monetary benefits without giving up as much control over their schools.

Longview ISD officials have hailed the process as a way to fund innovative programs and receive a significant infusion of state funds.

Q: Where is Longview in the process of a district-wide charter?

A: In May, Longview got approval to turn six of its 13 campuses into a district-within-a-district of charter campuses. Those campuses, which are now operated by the nonprofit East Texas Advanced Academies and led by a board that was appointed by the district, are East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy, J.L. Everhart Elementary School and Forest Park Magnet School.

Q: Is a district-wide charter the norm under SB 1882?

A: While the law places a limit on how many schools can become charter campuses in a district, Longview ISD received a waiver from the Texas Education Agency that allows it to bypass that limit, TEA spokesman Jacob Kobersky said in an email.

“TEA is always looking for new ways to support districts in providing a high-quality education for students,” he said. “Longview ISD now has an avenue to pursue its ambitious and innovative plans for student success while staying within the guidelines established by the waiver.”

Q: What benefits does the law provide for campuses that are converted?

A: The legislation allows for two-year exemption from state accountability ratings, State Board of Education Chair Keven Ellis said in an email. But, it also can be used to provide increased freedom and autonomy from standards for innovation purposes.

“Some examples of innovation are flexibility of the school calendar and no requirements for teachers to be provided a standard contract,” he said.

Chief Innovation Officer Craig Colman previously told the News-Journal the district may pursue the full-district option for innovation purposes.

Northcutt said even when the original six campuses were made charters, it always was for innovation purposes and not the exemption on ratings.

Q: How might campuses be changed?

A: Northcutt said the school board wants to hear what the public wants and will gear changes toward those wants.

The town hall meetings have been a chance for the board to hear what the community wants and be able to respond and have a dialogue, which they cannot do at board meetings, she said.

Q: What is ETAA?

A: Much of the time spent at the town hall meetings has focused around understanding the nonprofit East Texas Advanced Academies, which now oversees six of the district’s 13 campuses.

“I’ve gotten many questions on the board of ETAA, and why that board is not elected by the public, like the school board is,” Northcutt said at an earlier town hall meeting. “The reason is that Senate Bill 1882 was created so that an outside entity, specifically a nonprofit, would oversee a mutually agreed upon performance contract.”

Q: Who’s on that board and staff?

A: The ETAA board is made up of President Alan Amos, Jud Murray, Sam Satterwhite and Dr. Selwyn Willis. Murray and Satterwhite both are former Longview ISD trustees.

ETAA has five employees so far. Other employees on the network campuses are still considered Longview ISD employees who are managed by ETAA.

Those employees are Chief Executive Officer Cynthia Wise, Deputy of Business Operations Donald Stewart, Deputy of Curriculum and Instruction Megan Burns, Executive Assistant Maci Wilcox and Business Manager Mary Hagler.

Q: Why does Longview ISD want to give up control of those campuses?

A: The school board is not giving up control of campuses, Northcutt said. The campuses, even those run by a separate entity, are still part of Longview ISD.

“We are the ones who enter into the agreement with the entity,” she said. “If ETAA is not doing what we are expecting them to do we can terminate the agreement at any time.”

Northcutt said that if the district applies for and receives approval for district-wide charter status, the district will put out an external call for entities to run the campuses.

Q: So, the district hasn’t decided to do this yet?

A: District spokeswoman Elizabeth Ross said the district has not submitted an application. The district is doing the town hall meetings to receive community feedback.

At a previous meeting, Superintendent James Wilcox said he hopes the district gets more questions from the community.

“If somebody has a question, I want them to come, and we want to give them an answer,” he said. “We can’t make them like it, but we can give them the facts and tell them where we’re at.”

The district will have to get school board approval to pursue the application to TEA, Ross said. That approval would be voted on at an open school board meeting.

Northcutt said the district is not turning any schools over to an outside charter.

“The best part of it is we can go into this, and if it’s not something that works we can always stop,” she said. “I would hate for few years down the road us to see that other schools were able to take advantage of this and the opportunity no longer exists because the funding’s been given to other schools.”


Local
LEDCO, county look to better market East Texas Regional Airport

Bill Stoudt

Gregg County judge

Longview Economic Development Corp. is pursuing a marketing tool it hopes could attract more and bigger commercial development opportunities to East Texas Regional Airport.

LEDCO President/CEO Wayne Mansfield, Airport Director Roy Miller, AEP SWEPCO Economic and Business Development Manager Eric Basinger and Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt are part of “an informal group” interested in attaining a certification Mansfield says has paid dividends for other communities.

It’s an idea officials are enthusiastic about.

“There’s no question that the time is now, and I think going forward it’s going to be time,” Stoudt said. “We’ve got 900 acres of pretty pristine land out there to develop.”

Said Mansfield: “We’ve got the pieces of the puzzle. We just need someone to help us put the puzzle together, and that’s what this program hopefully will do.”

Known as AEROready, the certification was developed to help aerospace prospects identify potential locations.

An AEROready-certified community, region or site is considered ready for an aerospace industry, having undergone a deep analysis that makes sure the community has a supply of labor, opportunity and necessary infrastructure.

According to information on the aeroready.us website, the certification programs have helped in recruiting or expanding a number of aerospace companies to communities.

Communities such as Mount Pleasant and Shreveport already have been analyzed to show they can handle potential aerospace companies such as Boeing and Airbus, Mansfield said.

Two consultants, Tucson Roberts and Robert Ingram, developed the certification program, in which they would review the Gregg County airport and its aviation programs.

Mansfield, who came to Longview in 2017 from Vicksburg, Mississippi, said he remembers Ingram’s time as an economic developer for Mobile, Alabama. Ingram was there in September 2015, when that city won the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility where A319, A320 and A321 aircraft are assembled.

“It’s pretty comprehensive,” Mansfield said in describing AEROready’s three-month assessment process. He compared it to the Foreign Direct Investment Ready certification LEDCO recently attained for the Longview area.

As in the process for that certification, AEROready consultants will review infrastructure, meet with stakeholders and evaluate the local pipeline for aviation. LeTourneau University will play a key role in that, because of its College of Aviation and Aeronautical Science based on the airport grounds, Mansfield said.

LeTourneau University and the airport’s 10,000-foot runway are two big contributing factors in the certification, he said. He’s also gotten support from LeTourneau President Dale Lunsford.

“He’s on board with supporting this effort. Plus, they have the ability since they work in the aviation arena,” Mansfield said. “They have the ability to knock on doors to companies like General Dynamics and Boeing and Raytheon and Lockheed.”

AEROready consultants “will develop a marketing plan in terms of helping us market those aviation-related companies, and then also help us identify potential companies that may be expanding, so I’m really excited about the marketing aspect of it and then the identification access also,” he said.

If the East Texas Regional Airport qualifies as AEROready, Stoudt said the full Gregg County Commissioners’ Court would have to finally approve the certification.

That said, he welcomes marketing and commercial growth for the airport.

According to a master plan completed earlier this year, the airport generates an estimated $73 million in annual general aviation economic activity. Of that, about $22.2 million is devoted to salary, wages and benefits for nearly 650 workers at various employers.

“First of all, we do not have a department that would match what LEDCO could do in terms of developing a property. We don’t have that as county government,” Stoudt said, “and our relationship and partnership with LEDCO is excellent in working together with other industries around Longview, and if they come up with a plan, a system for marketing the airport to more clients and bigger clients, then I’m all for it.”

Commercial sites around the East Texas Regional Airport come with advantages like low leasing rates and the region’s lowest county property tax rate, the judge added, calling LEDCO a great asset for marketing those properties.

“It’s time now. It’s been time for years,” Stoudt said. “You’re getting people moving heavy iron out, and when I say heavy iron — big jet, helicopters from Shreveport. We’ve got some people from Tyler who had airplanes out there.”

He agreed with Mansfield that all the pieces are in place for development.

“We’re willing to work with anybody in terms of incentives,” Stoudt said. “If the economy stays like it is — low interest rates, cheap money — it’s a no-brainer.”


Local
Fire ants take over downtown Marshall for annual festival

MARSHALL — It was all ants on deck Saturday in Marshall for the 37th annual FireAnt Festival.

Picture-perfect weather helped draw a bigger crowd to the all-day affair than was seen a year ago.

“We couldn’t ask for better timing, it’s beautiful and people are able to come out and enjoy it any time of the day,” said Stacia Runnells, director of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce, which throws the annual festival.

It didn’t hurt that events were planned for all ages throughout the event, which continued into the evening around the square in front of the Harrison County Historic Courthouse.

The festival aims to make something fun out of the troublesome South American native pests, which have infested the region since the 1950s.

Daytime fun included a parade, competitions for dancing and gurning, a cupcake battle and other events. Young ant festival fans enjoyed the children’s play area including a free petting zoo, face painting and bounce houses. There also was a soapbox derby, bike race, a FireAnt 5K and other races.

It was all topped off by bands and other musicians playing throughout the day, and a street dance on the square that stretched late into the evening.

A regional feature of the festival was the crowning of this year’s FireAnt King and Queen.

This year’s royalty were London Gribble from Hallsville High School and Davion Williams from Marshall High School. The students were chosen from a group of FireAnt princes and princesses from area schools that took part.

This year’s colony of princesses and princes were Mary Grace Roos and Tyler Choi from Elysian Fields High School, London Gribble and Justice Nelson from Hallsville High School, Sarah Horan and Lawson Green from Harleton High School, Darbi Hill and Davion Williams from Marshall High School, and Anna Jackson and Christian Stephens from Waskom High School.

The FireAnt King and Queen are chosen by an outside panel that looks at the students’ grades, extracurricular activities, character and service projects.