Unlike Nixon, experts who have worked in other recent administrations say Trump is unlikely to have any tapes to check for discrepancies in the rough transcript — but there are likely to be plenty of witnesses to the call who could testify to its accuracy.
Larry Pfeiffer, the former senior director of the White House Situation Room under President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2013, described in an interview with The Washington Post how a presidential phone call transcript with a foreign leader gets made. Enough people are involved, Pfeiffer said, that it would be “foolish” of the administration not to release exactly what Trump has promised: “the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript.”
“If they release anything that looks less like a verbatim transcript,” said Pfeiffer, who also spent roughly three decades in the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, “there are a handful of people involved in this process who could be fact witnesses for whether what was released is what was actually said."
During the two years he led the Situation Room, organizing calls with foreign leaders behind the scenes was one of his main responsibilities, he said. He was the guy who sat at the end of the couch in the Oval Office, ready to provide any technical support should something go wrong. He would wait for Obama to signal he was ready to hop on the call, and in turn, Pfeiffer said, he would notify the folks in the Situation Room: the transcribers. Depending on the call, Pfeiffer said he typically assigned two or three of them.
“These guys and gals would be seriously hammering away at the keyboard, trying to capture the call as best as they could,” said Pfeiffer, now director of the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University. “At the end of the call, those two or three people would get together and compare their transcripts and come up with a unified transcript.”
When he first started in the Situation Room, he said, he asked his predecessor why they didn’t just record the phone calls rather than going through all the trouble of this furious transcription. “The answer I got was, ‘Oh God, no. They haven’t recorded those calls since the early ’70s,’ ” Pfeiffer recalled. After that, he said he didn’t feel the need to inquire any further.
Once the team of transcribers finalized their work, Pfeiffer said, the transcript would be sent to the National Security Council directorate staff with firsthand knowledge of the circumstances the president may have been discussing with foreign leaders. They would correct the transcript for accuracy, make edits for eloquence and clarity — or sometimes simply reduce the entire transcript to a short summary, Pfeiffer said. Whatever they chose to do, that document would become the final memorandum and official record of the phone call, Pfeiffer said.
Others say no precise transcripts are kept by the White House, as one former National Security Council senior director told the Wall Street Journal. Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Twitter Tuesday, “What you tend to have is a memo prepared by a NSC staffer listening in that captures what he/she believes are main points.”
It’s unclear exactly what type of document Trump’s administration plans to release of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Pfeiffer said the procedures he practiced had been in place for years in the White House, but he cautioned that he is not privy to any changes the Trump administration may have made to the rules. Trump, for example, was furious in 2017 after The Post published leaked transcripts of his phone calls with the Australian prime minister and Mexican president, prompting the administration to curtail public and private availability of readouts summarizing the calls. The White House did not immediately return a message about its current procedures for such calls.
Still, Pfeiffer described Trump’s decision to release the rough transcript as remarkable.
“Presidential head-of-state phone calls are so deeply protected by executive privilege, it’s frankly remarkable that the president is actually releasing a transcript of his call,” he said. “It’s unprecedented. It’s unusual. And the internal operations of the White House around specific events and calls is normally something that is very highly protected under executive privilege. So it will be interesting to see whether the existence of an impeachment inquiry changes that.”
Nixon famously asserted executive privilege to block the release of tapes capturing his coverup of the Watergate scandal, defying a congressional subpoena ordering him to turn most of them over. The tapes captured thousands of hours of conversations recorded from the Oval Office, a practice that stopped after Watergate.
At first, he gave Congress 19 tapes — but when they requested 42 others, Nixon instead handed over only transcripts.
In a presidential address to the nation announcing their release, he insisted to the public that the transcripts would exonerate him.
“I want there to be no question remaining about the fact that the president has nothing to hide in this matter,” Nixon said on April 29, 1974. He explained that he edited the 1,200 pages of transcripts to remove “irrelevant” information that was not subject to Congress’s subpoena, citing executive privilege and privacy concerns and promising that the rest would be sufficient.
But to House leaders, it wasn’t. Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) had said that “we will accept nothing less” than the tapes — and months later, they got them.
In July 1974, the Supreme Court ruled against Nixon’s claims of executive privilege and ordered the release of the tapes. The court acknowledged that some presidential communications should be confidential but said this right was not unlimited, that a president cannot simply assert a “generalized need for confidentiality” if the information is needed in a criminal trial, in that case the Watergate break-in.
Sixteen days later, Nixon resigned.
On Tuesday, like Rodino decades ago, both Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanded nothing less than the release of the full whistleblower complaint.
The complaint involves Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, in which Trump has admitted asking Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, one of Trump’s potential 2020 rivals, and Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Trump made the call to Zelensky days after he directed that nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine be withheld, The Post reported Monday. An anonymous intelligence official was so troubled by the exchange that he filed a complaint, describing an alleged “promise” Trump made in the call. Under congressional pressure, Trump ultimately released the funds.
So far, the Trump administration has stonewalled Congress’s requests for the full complaint, and Trump has denied there was any quid pro quo between his request to investigate Biden and the military aid.
The rough transcript of the call itself, Schumer said, would provide Congress with only an incomplete picture of what the whistleblower found so troubling. The complaint is said to cover more than just the phone call.
“We need the complaint as sent to the [inspector general],” Schumer said. “Without the complaint, we don’t know what the IG thought was so urgent. We do not know what the whistleblower thought was so urgent. So simply to release the transcript is not going to come close to ending the need of the American Congress and the public to see what actually happened.”
Trump has insisted that the rough transcript of the call will clear him of any wrongdoing.
“It’s nonsense,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “When you see the call, when you see the readout of the call, which I assume you’ll see at some point, that call was perfect. It couldn’t have been nicer.”