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H.R. McMaster. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Three former administration officials tell Axios that former national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not authorize and was not aware of the "locking down" of transcripts of conversations between President Trump and foreign leaders that were politically damaging but didn't pose national security risks.

Why it matters: Congressional investigators want to learn how, when and at whose direction transcripts were moved out of the typical computer system and into a classified system meant for highly sensitive security matters.

  • That process was described in the whistleblower's complaint about the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukraine's President Zelensky.

Details: Early reports suggested the practice might date to McMaster's tenure (February 2017–April 2018).

  • After calls between Trump and leaders of Mexico and Australia were leaked in 2017, the National Security Council did tighten a once-larger circle of staff and interagency officials who got access to foreign leader call transcripts by default, two of the former officials said. But that's not the same as whisking transcripts away to a classified system.
  • It's also true that another document — memorializing a conversation in 2017 in which Trump disclosed classified information to the Russians about ISIS and intelligence from another country — was later deemed highly sensitive and the details restricted.
    • One person familiar with the matter said that move wasn't about trying to protect Trump politically — the concern was protecting intelligence and a U.S. ally. Because the information was classified at one of the higher levels, it necessitated the move to the special system.

The bottom line: If McMaster was not involved in the practice, it raises questions about whether it began under his successor John Bolton or was happening for a longer duration at the direction of officials working around the national security adviser.

Go deeper

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
2 hours ago - Economy & Business

Americans are still spending money

Source: Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans spent more money at stores and restaurants in 2020 than they did in 2019 — even in the face of a devastating global pandemic that shut down broad sectors of the economy.

Why it matters: The monthly retail sales report this morning came in well below expectations, and showed consumer spending falling on a seasonally-adjusted basis. Total expenditures were still higher in December 2020 than they were a year previously, however.

The deplatforming fight shifts to the courts

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Capitol riot and tech firms' sweeping attempt in its wake to dislodge the online far right are kicking up efforts to have the courts settle knotty questions about online speech and power.

Why it matters: Legal battles could force the people angry at Big Tech to bring more rigor to arguments that have often devolved into messy sideshows.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
5 hours ago - Health

Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden has picked former FDA chief David Kessler to lead Operation Warp Speed, a day after unveiling a nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief plan that includes $400 billion for directly combatting the virus.

Why it matters: Biden's transition team said Kessler has been advising the president-elect since the beginning of the pandemic, and hopes his involvement will help accelerate vaccination, the New York Times reports. Operation Warp Speed's current director, Moncef Slaoui, will stay on as a consultant.