You know this story. It absorbed an enormous amount of media attention earlier this month, both for the flagrancy of Trump’s attempted deception and for its role as the centerpiece of his ongoing insistence that his incorrect statement about Alabama was correct. It was emblematic of Trump’s approach to his mistake: deny, deny, deny.
It also represented something more disconcerting. It was an obvious example of Trump taking official, objective information from the government and tweaking it to show what he wanted it to show. It remains baffling that he thought no one would notice, given that unaltered versions of the map were distributed publicly several days earlier. We can’t take much consolation from his not having gotten away with it, though, because he still did it — and he did it with the acquiescence of at least some members of his administration.
Over the course of his presidency, Trump has said untrue or inaccurate things more than 12,000 times. No American should be surprised that Trump tried to mislead us; he does it quite literally on a daily basis. It’s the complicity of the rest of the White House, and the brazenness and relative unimportance of Trump’s deception here, that drove so much attention to his little marker loop.
Twenty days later, that stupid little half-circle of Sharpie matters much, much more than it did then.
On Wednesday morning, the White House will provide to the public a rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Over the past week, that call has become central to questions about the extent to which Trump tried to pressure Ukraine’s government to dig up alleged dirt on former vice president Joe Biden. A whistleblower from the intelligence community filed a complaint in August reportedly centered on concerns about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine, behavior which may include having withheld aid to the country as he sought to get Zelensky to help his 2020 campaign.
Trump announced on Tuesday that he would release a transcript of the call to allay concerns about his interactions with Zelensky. As we noted then, providing that transcript while withholding the rest of the whistleblower’s still-private complaint wouldn’t answer broader questions about the disconcerting pattern the whistleblower observed. It would answer only part of the question: what Trump said to Zelensky and vice versa.
If it can even answer that reliably. What’s expected isn’t a verbatim transcript but something rougher. Larry Pfeiffer, senior director of the White House Situation Room during part of Barack Obama’s administration, explained to The Post how documentation calls with foreign leaders worked under his watch. Sometimes, he said, a full transcript was produced, while at other times — most other times, according to another staff member who spoke with the Wall Street Journal — staffers generated only a broader summary. Calls in the post-Watergate era are not recorded.
What we get, then, may be an approximation of what Trump and Zelensky discussed — an approximation produced by staff working for the same president who took out that marker to edit a map of Hurricane Dorian. In this case, though, it would be much harder to catch any changes in real time, since the rough transcript can’t be compared with an already-public document.
Speaking to The Post, Pfeiffer said it would be “foolish” for the White House to try to release something that didn’t accurately convey the conversation.
“If they release anything that looks less like a verbatim transcript,” he told The Post's Meagan Flynn, “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."
There is precedent for a White House nonetheless releasing something other than a complete record of its actions. In 1974, Americans learned that transcripts provided by Richard Nixon’s White House were incomplete, once recordings were made public.
More important, though, Trump has a demonstrated recent track record of bringing people in line to defend his argument. During the fight over that Dorian map, the White House released a statement from Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, Rear Adm. Peter Brown, defending Trump’s claims on Alabama. Administration officials pressured the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to similarly defend Trump’s erroneous claims. In each case, the White House decided that leveraging long-term confidence in its staff and institutions was worth defending Trump’s error. And his staff and that institution did so.
Trump's goal on Wednesday isn't to definitively answer the question of what happened with Ukraine. It's primarily to tamp down speculation that he threatened Ukraine by withholding aid, with the hopeful side effect of scoring points against the media and his opponents.
It’s to set a benchmark of innocence that he can point to as a finish line, declaring the issue to be finalized. Any new revelations, then, are framed as desperate scrambling to re-litigate an already-settled issue. It’s the playbook he used to great effect with the report from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — with the assistance of a generous summary of that report produced by another Trump staffer, Attorney General William P. Barr.
Here’s the thing, though: Even a flawless transcript from the administration will be treated with justifiable skepticism. It would have been treated that way even before the incident with the Sharpie, but it will be treated that way particularly because of how Trump tried so desperately to prove himself right earlier this month. Trump’s credibility was shaky before that incident, to put it mildly, but in that case, he also demonstrated a willingness to put the credibility of the government to work in his defense.
At this moment, with impeachment proceedings underway pegged to his interactions with Ukraine, that seems like a much bigger mistake than it did at the time. And it seemed like an awfully big mistake then.