What call logs may mean for impeachment: Three questions

Why We Wrote This

Embedded in the House impeachment report are call logs – concrete records that shed light on connections between people and on events before and after conversations. 

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., back right, gets in the elevator with other lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Dec. 3, 2019. Committee Democrats have released a report outlining what it calls wrongdoing by President Donald Trump.

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Now there are phone records. The just-released Democratic House Intelligence Committee impeachment report reveals, among other things, that panel investigators obtained call logs from telecommunications providers detailing interactions between some of the key players in President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

These aren’t full transcripts. And they appear to be centered on phone numbers largely associated with President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

But such records can be used as supporting evidence for the charge that Mr. Giuliani ran a shadow foreign policy pushing Ukraine to launch investigations politically useful to Mr. Trump.

They can also raise questions, including whether Mr. Trump himself is the mysterious number “-1.” Why might that matter? If the phone data suggest that Mr. Trump was closely coordinating with his lawyer, it might make it harder to argue that Mr. Giuliani was acting on his own in pushing Ukraine to open investigations into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Yes, there are phone records. The just-released Democratic House Intelligence Committee impeachment report reveals, among other things, that panel investigators obtained call logs from telecommunications providers detailing interactions between some of the key players in President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

These aren’t wiretap transcripts. They don’t reveal what people talked about, or even, definitively, who was talking. They appear to be centered on phone numbers largely associated with President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

But such records can show connections and coordination between people working together. Their timing can shed light on things that occurred before or after the conversations. They can be used as supporting evidence for a general assertion – in the case of the Democratic impeachment report, the charge that Mr. Giuliani ran a shadow foreign policy pushing Ukraine to launch investigations politically useful to President Trump.

They can also raise questions of their own. Here are three related to calls referenced in the House report:

Is President Trump the mysterious number “-1”?

The call logs detail a number of connections to Mr. Giuliani from a mysterious number identified only as “-1”. Who is that?

House investigators suspect it is President Trump. They are working to establish that fact “definitively,” according to Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff of California.

One powerful piece of evidence is that the notation has turned up before. In the trial of Roger Stone, President Trump’s longtime friend and political adviser, for lying to Congress and other charges, phone records showed Mr. Stone also receiving calls from -1. Subsequent witness testimony established that the calls in question indeed came from the president. A jury found Mr. Stone guilty of seven felonies last month.

In addition, -1 generally contacted Mr. Giuliani after he had made a short call or texted to the White House. On April 23, for instance, over the course of an hour in the early afternoon, Mr. Giuliani made three brief calls to what the logs described as a “White House number,” according to call records contained in the footnotes of the House report. None were longer than 20 seconds. Half an hour after the last one, “-1” called Mr. Giuliani. The call lasted eight minutes and 28 seconds, according to the logs.

Finally, Mr. Giuliani talked to “1” quite a bit – longer, in fact, then any other number listed in the nine days covered by House Intelligence Committee documents. The total was 50 minutes of speaking, according to one estimate from Washington Post reporter Phillip Bump.

Is this identification game important? House staffers argue that it is, because the raw phone data could show that Mr. Trump was closely coordinating with his lawyer on Ukraine – especially during a few key days. It might make it more difficult to argue that Mr. Giuliani was acting on his own in pushing Ukraine to open investigations into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Why so many calls on Aug. 8?

House Democrats say the phone logs also document the nature and amount of communication among President Trump, Mr. Giuliani, and associates, in conjunction with key events in U.S.-Ukraine relations.

For instance, the back-and-forth on April 23, noted above, was followed by more phone calls between Mr. Giuliani and White House numbers, including “-1”, on April 24, according to call logs. A few hours after they finished, embattled U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, a target of Mr. Giuliani’s, was recalled.

Aug. 8 of this year is notable in that regard. It was a crucial moment. Ukrainian officials were pressing U.S. representatives for an Oval Office meeting for their new president, as well as military aid. According to testimony from Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, U.S. diplomats, in turn, were scrambling find a “deliverable” – in the form of a Ukrainian statement announcing investigations – that would satisfy President Trump.

That day there were at least 24 attempts at communication between Mr. Giuliani and the White House, according to call logs, though most were very short, possibly missed calls or a game of telephone tag. At least two were apparently substantive: a 13-minute call between Mr. Giuliani and an “OMB Number,” according to House report footnotes; and a four-minute call afterward with “-1.”

The result was an attempt by U.S. diplomats to negotiate with the Ukrainians the exact language Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy needed to use in a television appearance.

“Ambassador Sondland suggested reviewing a written summary of the statement because he was ‘concerned’ that President Zelensky would ‘say whatever he would say on live television and it still wouldn’t be good enough for Rudy, slash, the President [Trump],’” says the House Intelligence report, citing Mr. Sondland’s deposition.

The statement was never delivered. In terms of top U.S. officials, “everyone was in the loop” on this negotiation, Mr. Sondland testified before the House.

Have the phone records revealed new participants?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the phone logs is that they include Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and a participant in the panel’s public hearings.

Representative Nunes and Mr. Giuliani spoke for around three minutes on April 10, for instance, according to the call logs. That week Mr. Giuliani was also in touch with Lev Parnas, a business associate in his Ukraine dealings who is now in prison in the U.S. awaiting trial on campaign finance charges, and John Solomon, a journalist at The Hill and author of pieces alleging misdeeds on the part of former Vice President Biden.

Mr. Nunes’ linkage to Mr. Giuliani is interesting in light of charges made by Mr. Parnas through his attorney that he had worked to put the congressman in touch with people in Ukraine who could provide dirt on the Bidens and other Democrats.

In an appearance on Fox News, Representative Nunes said it is “possible” he met Mr. Parnas but he does not recall the name. Intelligence Committee chairman Schiff declined to comment specifically on his colleague, but did say that while President Trump was “digging up dirt” on Biden, “there may be evidence that there were members of Congress who were complicit in that activity.”

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