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SAUL LOEB

Are White House transcripts getting politically motivated touch-ups?

Among the most important moments in the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki this week was the Russian president’s concession that he wasn’t neutral in the 2016 American election: Vladimir Putin acknowledged that he wanted Donald Trump to win.

Reuters reporter Jeff Mason asked, “President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?” There was an audio issue at the time, it’s not clear that the Russian leader heard the second part of the question. That said, he replied, “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”

In context, Putin seemed to be responding directly to the first part of the question, about his political preference.

But Uri Friedman had an interesting piece  in The Atlantic yesterday, noting that the official White House transcript presented the exchange in a way that paints a misleading picture.

[I]f you watch the White House live-stream of the press conference or look at the transcript published by the White House, the first half of Mason’s question is not there. Without it, the meaning of the exchange is substantially different. […]

The discrepancies in the accounts of what was said also underscore the extent to which the Trump presidency has challenged a common understanding of reality. Even if the omission was accidental, it appears suspicious at a moment marked by the president’s repeated claims that legitimate news reports are “fake.”

To appreciate the nuances to this, take a look at the full piece in The Atlantic, which goes into detail. The way the White House transcript reads, when Putin said, “Yes, I did,” he seemed to be adding thoughts to an answer from moments earlier about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But he wasn’t – the Russian president’s answer was about him favoring Trump in the 2016 race.

In fairness, there may have been some technical difficulties that affected the transcription. The trouble is, the Trump White House has had some notable troubles in this area before, which makes it more difficult to give the president’s team the benefit of the doubt.

As regular readers may recall, in January, during a White House discussion on immigration policy in January, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Trump if he’d support a “clean” bill on DACA, extending protections to Dreamers, with a commitment to then begin negotiations on comprehensive immigration reform. The president said he had “no problem” with that.

“We’re going to do DACA and then we can start immediately on the phase two, which would be comprehensive,” Trump added. “Yeah, I would like to do that. I think a lot of people would like to see that, but I think we have to do DACA first.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) quickly interjected, reminding the president of what the Republican position is supposed to be, but just as important, if you relied on the White House transcript to learn what was said, you missed a key detail: the president’s “Yeah, I would like to do it” line was missing from the official White House transcript.

Several months earlier, during Anthony Scaramucci’s not-quite-two-week stint as White House communications director, he appeared in the press briefing room to gush about how impressed he was with Trump’s limitless abilities, and marveled at the president’s ability to sink “three-foot putts” while playing golf.

The official White House transcript was edited to say “30-foot putts.”

Now, it’s possible this too was a clerical error. But it’s also possible someone in Trump World believes touching up official transcripts is an acceptable practice.

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum had a good piece a while back, explaining, “Transcripts are not supposed to be ‘revised’ after the fact. Official White House transcripts record exactly what the person said, regardless of ‘what they meant to say.’”

The truth is, I don’t know if this is common or not. Maybe we’re talking about a few isolated incidents, or maybe this happens regularly and no one notices. As a rule, political observers either listen to remarks or they read transcripts, but few take the time to do both – that’s awfully time consuming – in order to look for transcription edits.

Perhaps it’s time we start?

White House

Are White House transcripts getting politically motivated touch-ups?