On Tuesday, the Washington Post and CBS News sent shockwaves through an American public increasingly resistant to surprise or outrage. But even as a global health crisis persists and autocracy spreads, the news that Donald Trump’s call logs from January 6, 2021 contain a seven-hour-plus gap without any calls was stunning. As Philip Bump of the Post observed, “As president, Donald Trump spent a remarkable amount of time on the phone. He called legislators, he called reporters. He called friends, he called supporters.”
But it’s not just that it’s improbable that a person as voluble as Trump would go without a single phone call for nearly eight hours. Rather, we already know — from other records provided to the January 6 investigation by the National Archives and Records Administration — that Trump made calls during the gap. One of those documents, Trump’s “daily diary,” indicates a call at 11:17 a.m., for instance, with an unidentified person. A second document, which the January 6 investigation filed in its fight to obtain emails from John Eastman, reveals that 11:17 call was with then-Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, followed by an 11:20 call with Vice President Pence.
Additionally, there are public reports of other, non-logged calls long acknowledged by those on the other side of the phone, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville. Thanks to new reporting by The Guardian’s Hugo Lowell, which NBC News has not yet confirmed, we have learned that in trying to reach Tuberville, Trump mistakenly dialed Utah Senator Mike Lee from an official White House phone during the gap. And although that call appears nowhere on the White House call logs, it is reflected on “call detail records,” presumably from Lee’s cell phone.
All told, the January 6 investigators must be frustrated by this 457-minute gap. Not only is it at odds with crumbs of proof, but it is audacious in its scope. My colleague Steve Benen aptly noted the gap is “more than two dozen” times as long as the “Rose Mary Stretch,” the missing 18.5 minutes of Nixon’s tapes that his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claimed she erased accidentally.
As a litigator, I experienced gaps in evidence that ranged from inconvenient to disastrous. But I also learned, especially from colleagues who had been prosecutors, that if you know where to look and/or who to ask, what seems like an evidentiary chasm often can be circumvented or closed.
That’s why late yesterday, I called a former senior White House official well versed in West Wing operations. And as expected, they essentially told me how to resolve who Trump spoke with between 11:20 a.m. and 6:54 p.m.
- A president’s “daily diary” is compiled by a professional, full-time diarist based on information collected from several other staffers. Each diary is not necessarily completed that day, but all days are buttoned up, in the usual course, by the end of a month.
- The diarist depends on the people in closest physical proximity to the president for the information included in each day’s entries. White House staffers who typically contribute to the diary include the president’s personal aide (also known colloquially as his “body guy”), the president’s personal secretary, staff of the WH Communications Agency or Situation Room if the president speaks with a foreign leader, and/or the head of Oval Office operations. Depending on the staff secretary’s relationship with the president, that person may be involved as well.
- In January, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told CNN that Trump “gleefully” watched at least parts of the January 6 attack on the TV in the dining room off the Oval Office, exulting, “‘Look at all those people fighting for me.’” While huddled in that dining room or in the study abutting the Oval Office, it’s conceivable Trump made calls from a cell phone or a “burner phone.”
- Yet the former White House official told me there is a “peephole” in the door to the Oval Office so that the personal secretary can see whether the President is available. That would mean that if Trump made or received calls while he was in the Oval Office during the afternoon of 1/6, his personal secretary might have witnessed or overheard those calls. And notwithstanding Grisham’s recollection, it appears Trump called at least one person that afternoon from an official White House number.
Therefore, if that former White House official were advising the 1/6 investigation, they would recommend interviewing Trump’s personal secretary, personal aide, and the presidential diarist. Indeed, two of those people—personal aide Nick Luna and personal secretary/head of Oval Office operations Molly Michael—were subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 investigation months ago; Luna appeared before the committee last week.
But what about the president’s diarist, whose work is often public but whose identity is seldom revealed? Indeed, the last time The New York Times even mentioned the official White House diarist was in 1998, when Ellen McCathran testified before a grand jury convened by then-Independent Counsel Ken Starr. That’s perhaps because the diarist is a career employee, not a political appointee. In fact, the presidential diarist works for the National Archives and is then detailed to the White House. NARA describes the position on its website as follows (emphasis added):
“The Presidential Diary, similar in nature to a daily log, is a chronological record of the President’s movements, phone calls, trips, briefings, meetings, and activities. The Diarist compiles information from a wide array of Presidential records, manages the paper record and a computer database system, and assists the incumbent Administration with information requests regarding the official schedule of the President. Traditionally, the Diarist is based in the Office of Scheduling and Advance and works with Oval Office Operations. This organizational structure assists the Diarist in receiving the most complete scheduling information. As a NARA employee, the Diarist position is non-political in nature and the work is noninterpretive. The Diarist’s objectivity and non-partisanship is an important factor in maintaining consistency, completeness, and accuracy of the record.”
Yet despite NARA’s insistence that the position is “non-political,” The Guardian surveyed multiple current and former White House officials with a different real-life perspective. They said Oval Office aides “have some sway to determine whether a particular event was significant enough to warrant its inclusion.” By contrast, “the presidential call log, typically generated from data recorded when calls are placed by the White House operators, is supposed to be a comprehensive record of all incoming and outgoing calls involving the president through White House channels.” Nonetheless:
. . . [A] copy of the call log — alongside the president’s daily schedule and the presidential line-by-line document — might be provided to Oval Office operations to help compile the presidential daily diary.
That could lead to a situation where records are vulnerable to tampering, since the presidential daily diary and call log needs approval by a senior White House official before they can be sent to the White House office of records management, the officials said.
And by the time of January 6, two former Trump White House officials said, there was scope for political interference in records preservation, with no White House staff secretary formally appointed after Derek Lyons’ departure on 18 December.
All of this means Nick Luna, Molly Michael, and the presidential diarist, whose identity is not public, just became even more critical witnesses—and their records, from emails and texts to their own call detail records and handwritten notes, have achieved new significance too. After all, the primary purpose of the January 6 committee, according to its authorizing resolution, is “[t]o investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances and causes relating to the [attack on the Capitol] and related to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power,” whether or not they discover evidence of crimes as yet uncharged. But if the investigation also reveals a related cover-up? Well, as the saying goes, that might be worse than any crime.