White House conversations have not been recorded since the mid-1970s, when President Richard Nixon scandalized the practice, said Laurence Pfeiffer, a senior director of the White House Situation Room during the Obama administration.
Memcons are instead created by a team of note-takers, initially, who contemporaneously record, by hand and on computers, what the president and the other party say. The note-takers are duty officers — nonpartisan career staff with military or national security experience — whose job it is to monitor the Situation Room around the clock.
“These are very hard-working, talented people on whom we put a heck of a responsibility to do this job,” said Pfeiffer, who worked in the White House from 2011 to 2013. “We considered this one of our most important jobs.”
Historically, Pfeiffer said, the process has been apolitical; the rough transcripts have been edited only for clarity and accuracy.
But former White House staffers said that the Trump administration, in a departure from prior presidencies, has been more willing to edit the telephone conversation memos to remove errors or insensitive remarks Trump has made, apparently in an effort to avoid political heat or embarrassment.
“Don’t rely on whatever transcript is released,” said a former staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. “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.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Despite concerns about the possibility of doctored memos, former officials who handled these kinds of calls with foreign leaders said the substance of Trump’s July 25 conversation with Zelensky seems to be well-covered in the rough transcript released Wednesday.
The memcon released Wednesday outlines what was meant to be a congratulatory call from Trump to Zelensky on the Ukrainian leader’s presidential victory. The conversation, according to the memo, then became political, with Trump asking Zelensky to work with the U.S. attorney general to investigate presidential candidate Joe Biden. That revelation, the subject of an intelligence whistleblower report, led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to announce Tuesday the beginning of a formal impeachment inquiry.
Traditionally, during presidential phone calls with world leaders, two or three note-takers listen in on the president’s calls from inside the Situation Room, transcribing as accurately as possible what is being said.
Though audio of the calls is not recorded, per se, voice-recognition software is now used to help produce a baseline record of the call — almost like dictation — to get as close to verbatim as possible. A White House official said documentation of the Trump-Zelensky call was the product of this system.
“It spits out something like a transcript,” one former National Security Council staffer explained.
Pfeiffer said the software does not record or process the president’s voice. It processes the voice of a staffer who repeats what that person hears on the call. The software then produces a rough transcript.
At the same time, he said, other officials listening in on the call, whether in the Oval Office or another meeting room, are furiously scribbling their own notes, as close to word for word as their shorthand allows. Those listening in could be the president’s chief of staff, the national security adviser or a member of the NSC staff in charge of monitoring the other leader’s region of the world, as well as State and Defense Department officials.
After the call, the note-takers compare their notes and consolidate a recollection of the conversation into one document, former officials said. Then it is passed to senior NSC staffers and other experts who listened, who compare it with their own notes and memories and also correct proper names and other errors the software made.
For the call to the Ukrainian president, the head of the NSC’s director for Russia and Ukraine would have signed off on the edited version. The final version is approved by senior NSC staffers.
Despite concern that the memo was edited, former officials said, a sanitized version would not have included Trump’s complaints about his former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine being “bad news” and a vague suggestion that “she’s going to go through some things.”
But it did stand out, they said. Trump is not known for speaking in clear, declarative sentences, as the memo conveyed; his conversational style is often punctuated by rambling clauses that stray from his original point.
Pfeiffer said that during his time in the Obama White House, it wasn’t unusual for officials to smooth out language so that a foreign leader sounded “more stately.”
“I kind of think that happened on this transcript, because it reads really nice,” Pfeiffer said.
Former Obama administration officials said that during their time in the White House, these memos were not doctored for political purposes or to push a partisan agenda. Pfeiffer said the note-takers’ raw transcripts were preserved during his tenure to protect the president against mischaracterizations of a conversation by a foreign leader.
White House officials, Pfeiffer said, were always aware that the government on the other line could be transcribing its own record of the call.
“The subtext of all of that is, it would be awfully foolish of the U.S. president and staff to seriously doctor a document,” Pfeiffer said.
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.