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The transcript of Trump's phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky isn't a real transcript — and there's a worrying reason for that

The President has an aversion to record-keeping which extends beyond this instance, and should ring major alarm bells

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Wednesday 25 September 2019 19:40
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Trump interrupts Ukraine president Zelensky in press conference about phone call: 'You know there was no pressure'

As Yogi Berra once said, it's deja vu all over again.

Like the Mueller Report, the so-called "Nunes Memo" before that, and a Justice Department Inspector General report before that, Donald Trump claimed a newly-released document would vindicate him from charges of wrongdoing this week even though the document's contents did nothing of the sort.

This time it was a "memorandum of conversation" which National Security Council staff had prepared to document a conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the “memorandum”, Trump responds to Zelensky's request to purchase more of the Javelin missiles his military uses to defend against Russian tanks by asking for "a favor." Later in the conversation, Trump asks Zelensky to work with Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, and Attorney General William Barr to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden.

As they did with previous incriminating documents, Trump and his allies insist that the "transcript," as they call it, shows nothing untoward.

"It turned out to be a nothing call," Trump said Wednesday while at a multilateral meeting with representatives of the Venezuelan opposition movement (which his administration has recognized as that country's legitimate government).

Democrats had the opposite view, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling Trump's request to Zelensky a breach of the President's oath of office.

Trump called Pelosi to ask if they would 'work something out' over Ukraine whistleblower complaint says MSNBC reporter

But as bad as the conduct revealed by the newly-released memorandum might be, the worst might still be hidden from view due to what has become another hallmark of Trump's presidency: his resistance to having his words or actions documented.

Despite Trump's insistence that the document released Wednesday is a "transcript" of his conversation with Zelensky, it is not a transcript. While it reads at some points like a complete record of the conversation, a "CAUTION" note on the first page explains that it merely "records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place."

The reasons why the new document cannot be seen as a full transcript

The document even contains three ellipses, used to denote gaps in the record of the conversation, all at points when Trump is making requests of Zelensky. There does not appear to be any record of what Trump asked for in full.

The lack of a transcript is a clear departure from how previous presidents' calls with foreign leaders were documented. According to one former National Security Council official administration, presidential phone calls have long been "routinely transcribed" by NSC staff.

It's not only a clear departure from how things were done in past administrations: it's a departure from the practices in place when Trump took office.

His calls with foreign leaders were transcribed in full until at least August 2017, when the Washington Post published transcripts of two awkward calls between Trump and the leaders of Australia and Mexico, respectively. But it appears that Trump — or someone within the administration looking to protect him — put the kibosh on such an accurate record of his words not long after.

According to former White House stenographer Beck Dorey-Stein, that's how he likes it.

"It's much easier to muddle the truth when you don't have a transcript," Dorey-Stein told NPR last July.

Trump's aversion to record keeping — and the accountability it brings — actually goes even further. While the Presidential Records Act requires that all paperwork touched by the President be preserved for posterity, Trump's habit while in office has been to tear up papers when he is done with them. Not only is such a practice illegal, but it made life miserable for the Executive Office of the President's career records management staff.

“It was the craziest thing ever. He ripped papers into tiny pieces," former records management analyst Solomon Larty told Politico after he and a colleague were fired without explanation.

Trump's dislike of documentation seems to have even extended to his own attorneys.

When then-White House Counsel Don McGahn told Trump that he'd told Special Counsel Robert Mueller the truth about Trump's attempts to end Mueller's investigation, the President complained about McGahn's and his deputy's habit of taking notes: ”What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don't take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes."

According to Mueller, McGahn responded that he kept notes because he was a "real lawyer," and explained that notes which create a record are not a bad thing.

Trump responded: "I've had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes."

Cohn, the non-note-taker who rose to prominence as the late Joseph McCarthy's attack dog, was disbarred in 1986 amid allegations that he'd manipulated a client into amending his will and that he'd misappropriated client funds. Despite his best efforts, enough documentation of his unethical conduct existed to seal Cohn's fate, ending his legal career.

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent endorsement of impeachment proceedings, it's possible that what limited records have survived in spite of Trump's aversion to them might seal his as well.

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