Trump Administration

Congress Should Not Be Satisfied With Ukraine Call Transcript, Given the Trump White House's History of Fiddling With Records

The Trump administration has lost the benefit of the doubt because it has relentlessly lied about so many less significant matters, from weather maps to transcripts of press conferences.


One of the dumbest news cycles of summer 2019 is somehow actually relevant to Wednesday's release of a transcript of a phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

More on the transcript in a moment. First, let's recall the multi-day fiasco that was the approach of Hurricane Dorian during the final days of August. While the storm was annihilating parts of the Bahamas (there are still more than 1,000 people missing), the White House was engaged in a dayslong effort to prove that Trump's errant tweet warning residents of Alabama about the storm—the state was not in any actual danger—was actually rooted in meteorologic reality. The farce culminated in Trump posing next to an obviously doctored weather map showing the forecasted path of the storm and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issuing a public rebuke to its Alabama affiliate for challenging the president's infallible understanding of tropical cyclones.

That's not the only or even the most inexcusable example of how the current administration has warped reality in order to protect Trump's ego or make him appear less obviously unfit for office. But it's worth keeping in mind as the next chapters of the Ukraine saga unfold: The Trump administration lies. Members of the administration lie even when the truth is obvious and public. By now, it should have lost any benefit of the doubt from Congress, the media, and the American public.

Which brings us back to the transcript released Wednesday morning. The five-page document details a conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy that took place on July 25. In it, Trump asks the Ukrainian president to "look into" business dealings that involved former Vice President Joe Biden's son. It is that request—a sitting president asking a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political rival in advance of an election—that sits at the center of the latest round of impeachment speculation.

The White House's decision to release the transcript is a calculated move, one would suppose, that's meant to benefit the president. Indeed, in the transcript, Trump raises the Biden issue only twice—not the eight times that had been reported by The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources. Anyone who expected the transcript to be a smoking gun (and who expected the White House to toss the smoking gun into public view this easily) will be sorely disappointed.

But the release of the transcript should not be enough to satisfy members of Congress seeking to determine whether the president crossed the line. For one thing, the transcript appears to be only the beginning of the Trump administration's alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens. On the call, Trump repeatedly tells Zelenskiy that he will have his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and William Barr, the acting attorney general, follow up on the request. Records of those calls must be released too.

Beyond that, however, Congress should also demand tapes of the calls.

To be clear, there is nothing about the transcript released Wednesday that suggests it has been doctored. Hopefully, it is an honest account of the July 25 call. But the Trump White House has proven, again and again, that it cannot be trusted to accurately reflect reality when the president's interests are at stake.

It's not just about a doctored weather map. In July 2018, the White House published an altered transcript of a joint press conference held by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That was an event that took place in public. There were reporters and TV cameras recording every word. And yet the White House's official documentation of the press conference left out a key exchange in which Putin admitted to meddling with the 2016 presidential election (although that meddling likely didn't change the outcome).

The White House also altered the transcript of a press conference from October 2018 in which Trump insulted an ABC News reporter to remove the incident.

An administration that's willing to warp reality to protect the president over small things that can be easily disproved does not deserve any benefit of the doubt when it comes to bigger things. Put another way, if the administration is going to doctor a weather map to protect the president's ego, why would it not go to similar lengths to protect his presidency from an existential threat?

Congress should "trust, but verify" (as Republicans used to be fond of saying before they became the party of Trump).

And there's no harm in asking for the tapes. If they match the transcript, then Congress will have done its due diligence without doing any additional harm to Trump or anyone else in his administration. If they don't, then Congress will have the accurate account—and that's what should matter above all else.