The Mystery of the Ukraine-Call Transcript

There are enough questions and inconsistencies to raise the prospect that the public version may not tell the whole story.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Twice during a press conference on Wednesday, President Donald Trump went out of his way to assert that a transcript of his call with Ukraine’s president, released last week, was verbatim.

“I had a transcript done by very, very talented people—word for word, comma for comma. Done by people that do it for a living. We had an exact transcript,” Trump said, without any prompting. A few minutes later, he noted that it was “an exact transcript of my call, done by very talented people that do this—exact, word for word.”

Trump’s claim was peculiar not because it is false—that’s typical enough—but because one need only look at the transcript itself to know that it’s false. The document notes:

CAUTION: A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text in this document 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.

This is not the first me-or-your-lying eyes moment to emerge from the transcript. Trump insists that he never pressured President Volodymyr Zelensky and that there was no suggestion of a quid pro quo on the call, even as the transcript clearly shows both.

But the gap between Trump’s claims and the reality points to a deeper question of whether the public really knows what was said in the phone call. On the one hand, the transcript is not verbatim, the White House’s cloak-and-dagger handling of records of the call betrays concern about its contents, and there are indications of elisions in the document that was released. On the other hand, the transcript that was released is incriminating enough to cast doubt on the claim that the administration was trying to hide things.

The White House didn’t violate standard procedure for releasing transcripts of calls with foreign leaders; there is no standard procedure, because releasing such transcripts is effectively unprecedented. But a whistle-blower complaint referred to “the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced—as is customary—by the White House Situation Room,” suggesting that a verbatim transcript does exist. The complaint also noted that records of the call were closely guarded and kept out of circulation, a claim that has been substantiated by reporting since.

In three places in the transcript, an ellipsis (a series of three dots) is used. That’s typically a marking that indicates where part of a conversation has been removed. The White House says the ellipses represent places where the speaker trailed off or paused, but current and former officials told The Washington Post that standard practice in such situations is to use dashes or “[inaudible]” in such cases.

Each of the three ellipses comes when Trump is lapsing into unproven conspiracy theories—the first two during a discussion of whether Russian hacking in the 2016 election was really a Ukrainian false flag, and the third when asking about his unsubstantiated accusations of wrongdoing by the Biden family. This makes the prospect of elisions in these key areas all the more important and tantalizing. Yet it is also imaginable that Trump veered into incoherence, as he sometimes does, leaving the notetakers befuddled or unable to reconstruct his words.

Many observers have noted that even though the whistle-blower was not on the call, the account that he or she offered aligns with the actual transcript, imparting credibility. It’s worth noting that the White House was aware of the complaint before releasing the transcript, though, and could have tailored its document to include only what was in the whistle-blower’s account.

Skeptics of the released transcript have also noted a discrepancy between the reported length of the call and the length of the transcript, especially in comparison with transcripts of calls with two other foreign leaders that were leaked in 2017. Trump and Zelensky spoke through interpreters, which could affect the length, but it’s not clear whether interpretation was simultaneous or not.

House Democrats will be curious about whether there is a more complete transcript, and are pressing the White House for more documentation about the call. Given that the administration declassified and released the transcript, it would likely be harder to claim executive privilege and hold back more extensive versions, though the White House has often made tenuous legal claims.

If it emerges that parts of the conversation were omitted from the transcript released by the White House, it would be yet another blow to Trump. As I have written, the attempts to cover up Trump’s call with Zelensky, including storing the records on a special server and restricting access to it, suggest that aides understood how disastrous the president’s pressure on Ukraine had been, and how damaging it would be if records leaked—in other words, those attempts strongly implied an admission of guilt. Additional legerdemain in the publicly released transcript would enhance that impression.

It’s a lesson that Richard Nixon learned the hard way. Responding to a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, Nixon released redacted transcripts of White House tapes. The House contended that the transcripts did not comply with the subpoena, and a federal judge agreed, ordering the administration to hand over the tapes themselves. After losing an appeal to the Supreme Court, Nixon handed over the tapes, including the one known as the “smoking gun.” Three days later, the president resigned.

Perhaps the White House has released an effectively complete transcript, or maybe no true word-for-word transcript exists. But given the furtiveness with which the administration has treated the matter, Trump’s lies about the verbatim transcript, and the inconsistencies in the transcript, the public can’t be confident that the transcript the White House released is the whole story.