Five times yesterday, Donald Trump published tweets insisting that everyone "read the transcript" of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The advice seemed unwise: those who've read the call summary realize it includes incriminating details that make Trump look worse, which is why many Republicans said it was a "huge mistake" for the White House to release it.
But there's a related problem of even greater importance: the summary of the controversial call isn't a transcript at all.
At first glance, the problem with the ellipses in the call summary may not seem altogether new. Those who read the document carefully, for example, know that it showed Trump telling Zelensky, "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me."
It hasn't been clear what those ellipses between "look into it" and "it sounds horrible" represented. Were words omitted? Did Trump trail off, losing his train of thought? Was there a brief interruption to the call? What about the other two instances in which ellipses appeared in the call summary?
Those ellipses have suddenly taken on an even greater significance, following yesterday's testimony in the congressional inquiry.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told members of Congress that he tried to edit a White House log of a July call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine's president to include details that were omitted, one lawmaker present at the testimony and another source familiar with it confirmed to NBC News.Vindman testified in a closed-door deposition before House impeachment investigators that the attempted edits were to reflect Trump mentioning possible recordings of former vice president Joe Biden discussing corruption in Ukraine and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy mentioning Bursima, the company who had hired Biden's son, Hunter, the sources said.
A New York Times report added that there is no audio recording of the Trump/Zelensky call, but White House notetakers and voice recognition software created a rough transcript. At that point, the document went to Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council, to help fill in gaps, especially as they relate to proper nouns and technical terms that would be unfamiliar to notetakers and the software.
Vindman reviewed the rough transcript and made edits. Yesterday, the Army lieutenant colonel told lawmakers that some of those edits were not reflected in the final document that was released to the public.
And according to the latest reporting, some of the omissions related specifically to Trump's interest in Joe Biden.
For context, it's worth noting that Donald Trump has assured the public that the released call summary is "an exact word-for-word transcript of the conversation." In fact, the American president has referred to the document as an "exact" transcript at least 16 times.
It now appears those claims were false -- and it's a curious thing for Trump to have lied about.
What's more, some of the White House's more sycophantic allies, including lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have repeatedly suggested that the call summary is the only relevant piece of evidence, and it's not incriminating enough to warrant presidential impeachment. It's a dubious argument for a variety of reasons -- not the least of which is that the call summary is just part of a larger picture -- but it's suddenly even less convincing now that we know that the transcript isn't a transcript, and its omissions are directly relevant to the scandal.
As for the apparent attempt at a White House cover-up, it'll be interesting to know who was involved in keeping Vindman's recommended edits out of the official document.