“They never thought I’d release the conversation. They never thought in a million years that I’d release the conversation,” Trump told reporters at the White House that day. “When ‘Liddle’ Adam Schiff saw the text, when he read it, he couldn’t believe it. When Nancy Pelosi, who worked a day early — Nancy Pelosi called for essentially impeachment — “Let’s impeach the President” — before she saw the transcript.”
“And this is an exact word-for-word transcript of the conversation, right?” he added.
“Well, it wasn't,” a reporter interjected.
“Taken by very talented stenographers,” Trump insisted. “Listen to me.”
The reporters could listen to Trump or they could read the bottom of the front page of the transcript itself, which states that it is “not a verbatim transcript of a discussion.”
“The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and-NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place,” it continues. “A number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation."
But Trump insisted that the world instead listen to him. The document was “an exact transcript of my call, done by very talented people that do this,” he said later on the same day. It was “an exact transcript,” he claimed on Oct. 11.
“The transcript is a perfect transcript,” he had said the day before. “There shouldn’t be any further questions.”
There were questions. There were questions about unusual markings on the document. There were questions about ellipses that interrupted Trump’s comments without explanation. There were questions about the extent to which what was documented was accurate. This was a president who, three weeks before, mobilized government agencies to defend his untrue claim about a hurricane threatening Alabama. Should we assume that the transcript he released was as perfect as he claimed?
His defenders embraced the idea that the transcript was complete. An increasingly awkward defense that ran in the Wall Street Journal — shared by the White House with the office of each sitting senator — insisted that the whistleblower who first raised questions about Trump’s interactions couldn’t be trusted because he used a plural when the transcript conveyed a singular. Trump’s press secretary offered a “fact check” on Twitter, which included Trump mentioning former vice president Joe Biden only once in the call. Trump said the transcript got everything, thanks to expert transcription, and his team embraced it.
That was never true, as that reporter noted on Oct. 2. We got a reminder of it on Tuesday, when the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman before the House impeachment inquiry reportedly included a description of elements of the call that didn’t make it into the transcript. One involved Trump talking at more length about Biden.
This was probably inevitable. It’s not clear how significant the omissions noted by Vindman were, but his testimony blows a massive hole in Trump’s claim that the transcript is a complete and thorough documentation of the call. Yes, that claim was always obviously false, but having a sense of something specific that was apparently excluded makes obvious just how many gaps there could be in the document.
So why did Trump make his assertion in the first place?
The most immediate and obvious explanation is that Trump operates only in absolutes. The transcript had to be perfect and compiled by the best stenographers because everything Trump does is the best and most perfect, until it isn't. Trump's default mode is that everything associated with him is flawless, up to and including transcripts that self-identify as potentially flawed.
Then there’s the political argument. Again, Trump was trying to suggest that the impeachment inquiry was predicated on a transcript that was bulletproof. He couldn’t very well wave away the criticisms of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) by saying that the rough transcript undermined their arguments if he admitted it was not a complete record of the call. So it became perfect and, therefore, unassailable. The Democrats didn’t have a leg to stand on because he had released everything there was to release.
That was a rationale in and of itself. By presenting the transcript as complete, Trump could then argue that there was nothing more to reveal. Subpoenas of staffers? Why? You have the complete transcript sitting right in front of you!
It was similarly important for Trump to make that case to his base of support. His base continues to stand firmly at his side in part because he leaves them little room to move around. The transcript is perfect, he claimed, and his supporters embrace the idea. That he released the rough transcript became a point of defense for Trump among his supporters: Why would he do that if he weren’t confident he would be exonerated? And, as you see, there’s no quid pro quo in the document!
That line of defense is brittle by itself, but if one assumes that the transcript itself is incomplete, it collapses nearly immediately.
What was revealed in Vindman's testimony isn't that the transcript wasn't complete; we knew that on the day it was released. What was exposed instead was how hollow Trump's claims about the transcript really were.
Trump has learned over the past four years that it doesn’t matter what he says. Whatever claim he makes, whatever defenses he offers, whatever alterations he has to make down the line are all just chaff. They’re clumps of Play-Doh thrown into a large lump. If a recording of the call suddenly became public in which Trump tells Zelensky that he’ll give Ukraine Pennsylvania in exchange for an investigation of Biden and his son Hunter, it would take about 24 hours for his most fervent defenders to mush that into their existing framework.
The why, then, is as simple as it ever was: Why not?