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No simple fix for patching gap in Trump January 6 call log

But even if electronic data’s not the solution, investigators may receive more help than you think.


In the wake of CBS News and the Washington Post’s disclosure that Trump’s January 6 call log contains a seven-plus-hour gap, several journalists, including Hugo Lowell of the Guardian and Aaron Blake of the Post, probed how White House call logs and the president’s daily diaries are produced. (Full disclosure: I too explored this topic.) CBS itself also explored how the diary was generated in the Trump White House specifically and revealed that both the White House staff secretary and the head of records management were usually involved in the process.

Then, last Friday night, CNN reported that the person serving as the presidential diarist on January 6 spoke to congressional investigators “roughly two weeks ago,” and told them that just days before the Capitol attack, “White House officials started providing fewer details about then-President Donald Trump’s calls and visits.” Other witnesses similarly told the panel, according to CNN, “there was significantly less information being shared with those involved in White House record-keeping during the same time period.”

That the diarist was “iced out” is just one potential roadblock as the January 6 investigation tries to fill the call log gap. According to The Guardian, for instance, Trump’s last White House staff secretary, Derek Lyons, who ordinarily would have participated in reviewing and approving call logs, left the administration in mid-December and was not replaced. Axios also reported that presidential secretary Molly Michael, who sat just outside the Oval Office and often placed Trump’s calls for him, was absent until the “late afternoon” of January 6. 

But testimony aside, aren’t there easier ways to reconstitute Trump’s call history? The call detail records of those with whom Trump spoke with on January 6th are one obvious route. Yet several of those people, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House aide Dan Scavino, whose cell phone Trump “sometimes” used to make calls, Trump’s longtime advisor Stephen Miller, and attorney Kurt Olsen, have sued to block the release of their cell phone records. And by the very act of filing lawsuits, they effectively have prevented the January 6 investigation from accessing their phone records until investigators prevail in court. 

Responding to my last blog post, Twitter user @robinmcstay suggested another potential workaround: “A call log is something that would be prepared as a record for internal staff. That is separate and apart from the actual phone record, prepared by the service provider that reflects the time that a line is in use.” In other words, isn’t there underlying electronic data, either in the White House’s possession or maintained by a commercial phone service provider? 

That’s a valid question. So late last week, I spoke with two more former senior White House aides. One is familiar with White House records; the other with WH administrative processes. Both told me that since Barack Obama’s second term, White House phone services are controlled by the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), a unit of the White House Military Office that “provides worldwide audiovisual, voice, and data communications support for the President, Vice President, Presidential Emissaries, White House staff, the United States Secret Service, and others as directed by the White House Military Office."

In other words, as this 2014 Defense Department document states, the WHCA provides communication and information services for the president anywhere and everywhere, “including the White House, National Capital Region, Camp David, President’s and Vice President’s private residences, White House senior staff residences, and wherever in the world the President, Vice President, or White House senior staff may travel.”

Yet knowing that the WHCA controls telecommunications services for the president doesn’t resolve other questions. Even if the WHCA is operated by military service members, aren’t White House phone services still reliant on commercial lines? And if so, as Robin noted, shouldn’t there be records of incoming and outgoing calls, their timing and duration, and the numbers used on both sides?

Not quite. In May 1998, during then-Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s investigation of the Clinton White House, a man named Alex Nagy testified before the grand jury. Nagy served as White House director of telephone service, and at that time, as he testified, both the White House Office of Administration and the WHCA oversaw aspects of telephone service on the White House grounds. Nagy also revealed that Bell Atlantic supplied the telephone lines within the White House while Sprint furnished the long-distance and international service. But because of the flat-rate service arrangements, Nagy said there were no electronic records of every time a phone is dialed from the White House.

The lawyers from Starr’s office were incredulous; you can almost hear their disbelief in the transcript. But Nagy’s testimony was unambiguous. Pressed again as to whether there was a way to obtain a record of a particular White House official’s calls, Nagy confirmed, “You wouldn’t get anything on local calls or internal calls. You’re not going to get anything on international calls.” He testified that this was true of domestic long-distance calls too. The lawyers also asked Nagy whether White House staff had ever discussed “whether it would make sense for security reasons to have records of every time a White House [phone] is picked up and a number is dialed.” Nagy demurred: “I’m not aware of that there’s ever been discussion of that. The contrary — maybe the opposite, I’d think.” Put another way, regardless of which party was in power — and Nagy had worked in the White House since the Nixon years — he understood that no administration had an interest in collecting, much less preserving, such detailed, unfiltered records of telephone calls placed or received.

Of course, 1998 was a long time ago. Both technology and the internal organization of the White House have evolved. But unless the WHCA or their commercial partners maintain electronic call data, don’t expect 1/6 investigators to bridge the call-log gap with call detail records. In fact, where presidential conversations are concerned, the dearth of such records may well be the point, no matter who’s sitting behind the Resolute Desk.

And that likely brings the committee back to two categories of witnesses: those in close physical proximity to Trump on January 6, 2021 and those privy to information about his schedule and phone calls. Several of these people have already talked to the January 6 investigation.

Other potential witnesses include “Austin Ferrer, a young staffer who assisted [Molly] Michael in her administrative duties” and was in and around the Oval Office on January 6, and Philip Droege, who, as the head of White House records management, received Trump’s daily schedule, as annotated by his personal staff and “with any notes on additional activity,” and provided them to the diarist.

Collectively, these staffers and other, as-yet unidentified players could piece together Trump’s conversations that afternoon, especially if they voluntarily turn over their own phone records.

The Mueller Report — and Don McGahn’s then-secret cooperation with Mueller’s team — is instructive here. The Report states plainly, “On Saturday, June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed. McGahn was at home and the President was at Camp David.” As proof that the call occurred, the Report offers two sources: the President’s Daily Diary, which reports a 23-minute call between Trump and McGahn . . . and the “Call Records of Don McGahn.”

How investigators obtained McGahn’s phone records, however, is another story, and one recounted by Michael Schmidt in his book, "Donald Trump v. The United States." In February 2019, Mueller’s team was still investigating potential obstruction of justice charges against Trump, even as the media reported the investigation was nearing its end. Mueller’s team needed more evidence to corroborate McGahn’s expected testimony, yet they were reluctant to tip off Trump (or start protracted litigation) by issuing a grand jury subpoena for McGahn’s phone records. So they asked McGahn, through his lawyer, to retrieve his own records. According to a source familiar with these events, McGahn obtained both his home and cell phone records from his providers, and coupled with McGahn’s own recollections, those records allowed investigators to “chart[] every call that McGahn and Trump had made in the days around the attempted firing incident.”

The January 6 investigation, of course, is not run by the Justice Department or an independent prosecutor. It is a factfinding mission in aid of Congress’s legislative role, and not a law enforcement tool. And that difference has emboldened some witnesses to openly challenge subpoenas rather than quietly comply. The big question remaining, therefore, is this: Of the people who surrounded Trump on January 6, are there more McGahns than there are Bannons and Millers? Watch this space.