The White House Quietly Corrects Its Putin Transcript

After more than a week of questions, the presidential record reflects that Putin admitted to wanting Trump to win.

Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

Nine days after The Atlantic first reported that part of a key exchange between a reporter and Vladimir Putin was missing from the official White House transcript of the Russian leader’s press conference with Donald Trump, the White House has corrected the error. It made the fix after facing repeated questions from reporters about the discrepancy over the past week and, most recently, allegations that the Trump administration had intentionally altered the text. The White House now denies this, blaming the problem on a technical glitch.

The Reuters reporter Jeff Mason’s first question, “President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election?” which didn’t show up in the original transcript, now appears alongside his second question: “And did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?”

The full quote is critical to understanding the meaning of what Putin says next: “Yes, I wanted him to win, because he talked about the normalization of Russian–American relations.” (According to the English translation broadcast during the press conference, which is also used in the White House transcript, Putin responded, “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.–Russia relationship back to normal.” But Russian speakers told me this is an inaccurate translation, and the Russian president was clearly saying “yes” to preferring Trump over Hillary Clinton—not to directing his government to assist Trump in defeating Clinton.)

Putin, in other words, was publicly admitting for the first time that he favored the Republican candidate because of Trump’s conciliatory approach to Russia, and therefore acknowledging a motive for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election even as he contested claims that he had done so. The admission became even more significant this week, when Trump, who has long rejected the notion that Putin preferred him over Clinton, expressed concerns about Russia seeking to help Democrats in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. “No President has been tougher on Russia than me,” he wrote on Twitter. The Russians “definitely don’t want Trump!” Putin’s statement only days earlier seemed to directly contradict that argument. He had declared, essentially: I wanted Trump.

On Tuesday night, in the wake of Trump’s tweet, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow opened her show by portraying Mason’s cut-off question in the White House transcript, and video of the press conference, as evidence that the Trump administration had deliberately edited out the context for Putin’s answer. As she noted, the omission was left uncorrected for a week without explanation despite The Atlantic, and then other news outlets such as CNN and NPR, highlighting the issue and asking the White House for comment. The goal, she suggested, was to obscure the truth about Putin’s preferences and Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and more broadly engage in “information warfare.”

“A critical exchange deleted from the transcript, a reporter’s question edited out of the videotape, the U.S. government essentially following the Kremlin’s playbook and maintaining that something we all saw happen with our own eyes, we all heard happen with our own ears, has nevertheless disappeared, like old political opponents being airbrushed out of photos,” Maddow asserted. “It’s creepy. Turns out it wasn’t a mistake. Turns out it was on purpose.”

Others soon argued that the omission might in fact have simply been a mistake—a result of the White House transcription service, like private transcription services used by some news outlets, missing the first part of Mason’s question because he asked it as a switch was occurring between the feed from the reporters and the feed from the translator. (The Atlantic noted the microphone and simultaneous-translation glitches in its report last week.)

On Wednesday, as Maddow’s report spread widely, a White House official issued a statement to reporters characterizing the error as an audio mishap rather than some intentional edit, and “by no means malicious.” The official explained that the stenographer relied on White House audio to put together the transcript and that “the audio mixer at the site did not bring up the question [microphone] level in time to catch the beginning of Jeff’s question because the translator was still speaking.” Then the White House told reporters the transcript would be “updated for the Presidential record.” On Thursday, the White House quietly updated the online version of the transcript. It did not respond to a request for comment from The Atlantic regarding why it corrected the transcript now rather than earlier.

The Atlantic also reported last week that the exchange between Mason and Putin was missing entirely from the Russian government’s English-language transcript of the press conference. The omission, in that case, has not been corrected.