The White House released a memorandum on Wednesday documenting President Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which has since become the focus of a groundbreaking whistleblower complaint and formal impeachment inquiry.
On the first page of the document, readers are advised that the memo is “not a verbatim transcript of a discussion,” and instead consists of the “notes and recollections” of White House Situation Room and National Security Council staff who were assigned to memorialize the conversation.
In its official statement, however, the White House described the document as a “transcript” — phrasing which was immediately picked up and used by reporters and media outlets even though it misleadingly suggested the conversation had been reprinted word-for-word.
The New York Times posted the full document noting that it was not a verbatim transcript. Others showed varying degrees of skepticism: CBS News called it a “transcript summary,” the Associated Press referred to it as a “memo” but also called it a “rough transcript,” while CNN and Fox News stuck with “transcript.”
Conservative media, on the other hand, capitalized on the opportunity to suggest the document exonerated Trump.
Dear news colleagues: The memo just released is a summary from note takers. It cautions that it is NOT a verbatim transcript of the conversation. So why do stories call it a “transcript”? Accuracy requires a better description.
— Kathleen Carroll (@kathleencarrll) September 25, 2019
Kathleen Carroll, chairwoman of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists and former executive editor of the AP, pointed out that the document itself clarified it did not contain a verbatim transcript of the call and asked why reporters were mislabeling the document.
“The memo just released is a summary from note-takers. It cautions that it is NOT a verbatim transcript of the conversation. So why do stories call it a ‘transcript’?” Carroll tweeted. “Accuracy requires a better description.”
Meanwhile, CNN’s Jim Scuitto pointed out how the document’s roll out echoed the Trump administration’s handling of the Mueller report.
“Releasing the transcript but blocking the full whistleblower complaint has echoes of Barr’s summary of the Mueller report: shape the narrative with incomplete information and hope it sticks with some members of the public even as further damaging info comes to light,” Sciutto tweeted.
A former Trump administration staffer also warned that the document would have been edited by NSC officials and may have left out some information.
“Don’t rely on whatever transcript is released,” the staffer told The Washington Post. “Even if it’s unredacted; those transcripts are heavily edited by political leadership at NSC. I’ve seen substance deleted from these call ‘transcripts’ to delete either superfluous details or more substance.”
Before the document’s release, Jim Goldeier, a former NSC staffer in the Clinton administration, wrote in The Post that reporters should not refer to the reconstructed notes as a transcript, which implies a document transcribed from a recording.
Administrations since Richard Nixon’s have made a habit of not recording presidential conversations after a Supreme Court battle over tapes of his conversations with White House staff led Nixon to resign.
In addition to being an edited reconstruction of the conversation, the memo was also stored separate from similar documents, according to the whistleblower complaint, which was released on Thursday. In the complaint, the whistleblower alleged that White House lawyers “directed” officials to “lock-down” all records of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, which were stored in a “stand-alone computer system reserved for codeword level intelligence information, such as covert action.”
“One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective,” the whistleblower wrote.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Trump defended the conversation as being “all perfect” and said it was congratulatory. But the White House notes show that immediately after Zelensky brought up the purchase of Javelin missiles from the US, Trump asked for a favor in exchange.
“I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump began. “Because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike…I guess you have one of your wealthy people…The server, they say Ukraine has it.”