WASHINGTON — Sometimes President Trump is in the Oval Office when he talks on the phone with a president or prime minister. Occasionally he is flying aboard Air Force One. Often he is in the White House residence, picking up the phone from the Treaty Room, or from his private suite, to connect with a world leader.
And at least on his end of the line, only a small circle of aides are privy to the conversation.
Ever since Democrats revealed that a whistle-blower in the intelligence community had filed an “urgent” report off a call the president held with a foreign leader, speculation has centered on how the person could have known what was said between Mr. Trump and Volodymir Zelensky, the young new leader of Ukraine.
With some difficulty, it turns out.
While Mr. Trump is on a call, his national security adviser is typically either in the room with him or listening in from his West Wing office. Typically, the adviser is joined by the senior director for the head of state’s region, as well as intelligence officials working from the White House Situation Room who connect the call and help to produce a rough transcript almost immediately after its conclusion.
The secretary of state can listen in if he requests, according to one former administration official. Vice President Mike Pence will also frequently join Mr. Trump on a call with a foreign leader, often at the request of Mr. Trump, according to an aide.
None of that is particularly unusual. Mr. Trump’s behavior on his calls with foreign leaders, during which he often disregards his briefing notes and abandons the recommended structure in favor of the kind of freewheeling conversations he conducted for years from the 26th floor of Trump Tower, may break presidential norms.
But the National Security Council’s meticulous process of scheduling them, preparing for them, and keeping a record of them has not changed dramatically during the Trump administration. The only difference, according to four former and current administration officials familiar with the process, is the “extreme steps” that have been taken to limit who can listen in on those calls or later read the transcript, for fear of leaks.
The complaint relates to a July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, in which Mr. Trump reportedly pressured Mr. Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he planned to release the full, unredacted transcript of his call with Mr. Zelensky, an effort to quell the controversy even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi was announcing the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry.
But beyond the phone call, what the whistle-blower knows and how the whistle-blower knows it is still mysterious.
Rough transcripts of the calls — there are no recordings from which they are based, and they can vary in their level of detail — were, at the beginning of the administration, widely shared documents that could be viewed by the White House chief of staff, officials at the National Security Council and people working in the region at the State Department or the Defense Department. That changed after the full transcripts of Mr. Trump’s conversations with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Australia were leaked in 2017.
In his call with Mexico’s leader, Mr. Trump stated that he was not actually concerned with whether Mexico would pay for the wall he wanted to build on the southwestern border, his signature campaign promise, but grew testy about the way it might look if Mexico didn’t. “If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that,” Mr. Trump said, according to the transcript.
The Trump administration took what one official called “extreme steps” to restrict who can listen in on the president’s phone calls. The leaks fed Mr. Trump’s fear that a “deep state” embedded in the government was seeking to undermine him from within.
A second former official said those leaks were viewed internally as “really shocking” and under the orders of Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, the decision was made to tightly limit the distribution of the transcripts.
The White House began delivering the transcripts as an “eyes only” document to just the secretary of state and the defense secretary, with both officials prohibited from copying or sharing it before returning it.
Neither a White House spokesman nor one with the National Security Council would comment.
The process leading up to the placement of the call, however, has not shifted under Mr. Trump.
If a foreign leader requests a phone conversation with Mr. Trump, the council will assess whether the connection is worth the president’s time, and how long it has been since Mr. Trump last spoke on the phone with that leader. The director at the council that handles that particular country will then write a memo, known as “the package,” which requires the national security adviser’s approval before landing on Mr. Trump’s desk. The memo is drafted on a secure internet system known as “the portal,” where other council staff can view it.
Mr. Trump could make his own calls directly to foreign heads of state, outside of the security council’s official process. But former aides said they did not know of any specific instance when he had circumvented a process set up for his own convenience and protection.
Mr. Trump, according to the former officials, does not often read “the package,” which includes basic details like the last time the two leaders spoke, the status of their relationship, the purpose of the call, what the United States has asked for from that leader and what has been given. He also often waves his hand in a “speed it up” motion during the in-person briefing he receives from his national security adviser before those calls.
Even when those notes are boiled down to bullet points on note cards, Mr. Trump does not always heed them. In a March 2018 phone call with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Trump congratulated him on his re-election despite the suspect nature of the vote and the violence that preceded it. A note in his briefing book, written in all capital letters, stated, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”
Mr. Trump and some of his early advisers chafed against the rigid system, insisting that the distribution of transcripts was aimed at giving the national security apparatus an avenue to control a freewheeling president. They argued for doing away with transcripts all together, in favor of summary notes about the call.
But Mr. Trump never succeeded in wresting the process away from the National Security Council.
The council’s guidance for Mr. Trump is to keep his calls brief, in part because the consecutive translation employed makes even short calls an imposition on the president’s day. Nonetheless, Mr. Trump sometimes spends more than 30 minutes on rambling phone conversations.
In the early days of the administration, many of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers would involve themselves in calls with foreign leaders, even when it was not clear they needed to be involved. One now-famous image from the early days of the administration showed Mr. Trump, sitting behind the Resolute Desk on the phone with Mr. Putin. Also in the photo, circling the desk and listening in were Vice President Mike Pence; Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s press secretary at the time; Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s adviser at the time; Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff at the time; and Mr. Flynn.
But those days have passed, officials said, at Mr. Trump’s request. He now favors the privacy of his residence.