Conflicting White House accounts of 1st Trump-Zelenskiy call

  • President Donald Trump attends an event on healthcare prices in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump released the rough transcript Friday of a congratulatory phone call he had with the incoming president of Ukraine, holding it out as evidence that he did nothing wrong. Instead, the memorandum shows how White House descriptions of Trump’s communications with foreign leaders at times better reflect wishful thinking than the reality of the interactions.

As the House opened its second day of public impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill, Trump released the unclassified record of his April 21 call with President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The document bears little resemblance to the paragraph-long official summary of the conversation that the White House released the same day as the 16-minute call.

The discrepancy highlights the gulf that often exists between the message that U.S. national security officials want to deliver to world leaders and the one that is delivered by Trump.

For years, U.S. officials have stressed the importance of trying to support democratic norms and root out corruption in Ukraine, which has been fighting a war of attrition against Russian-backed separatists since Russia invaded and later annexed Crimea in 2014.

To that end, the official readout of the Zelenskiy call reported that Trump noted the “peaceful and democratic manner of the electoral process” that had led to Zelenskiy’s victory in Ukraine’s presidential election.

But there is no record of that in the rough transcript released Friday. Instead, Trump praised a “fantastic” and “incredible” election.

Current and former administration officials said it was consistent with a pattern in which Trump veers from — or ignores entirely — prepared talking points for his discussions with foreign leaders, and instead digresses into domestic politics or other unrelated matters. In the Ukraine call, for example, Trump praised the quality of the country’s contestants in a beauty pageant he used to oversee and compared Zelenskiy’s election to his own in 2016.

“When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people,” Trump told Zelenskiy of his country.

The original readout also said Trump “underscored the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” But there’s no indication of that in the rough transcript.

Likewise, the readout said the president expressed his commitment to help Ukraine “to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.” The word “corruption” is not mentioned in the rough transcript of the call.

Corruption did feature prominently in Trump’s second call with Zelenskiy on July 25, the call that helped spark the impeachment drama.

It’s highly unusual for a president to release the rough transcripts of calls with foreign leaders, which are generated by voice transcription software and edited by officials listening in on the call to ensure it is accurately memorialized. The official readout, by contrast, is issued as a news release meant to further foreign policy aims. It is typically the only public account of the calls that presidents have with their counterparts.

Several current and former administration officials told The Associated Press that the readouts of foreign leader calls are often pre-written, reflecting official U.S. policy and what National Security Council officials hope the leaders will discuss and the talking points they provide to guide the president’s conversations. Those readouts are supposed to be revised after the calls to reflect what actually transpired.

But that doesn’t always happen, according to five current and former administration officials.

The officials said that staffers tasked with writing the readouts typically haven’t listened in on the president’s calls and instead rely on others to brief them on the content. They are also often under a time crunch driven by NSC staffers eager to have the U.S. readouts come out before the other nations releases their own accounts. Sometimes, they said, the administration simply doesn’t want to recount everything discussed.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the discrepancies.

“The president took the unprecedented steps to declassify and release the transcripts of both of his phone calls with President Zelenskiy so that every American can see he did nothing wrong,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

The Obama administration made it practice to issue fairly general readouts that offered only broad details about the president and vice president’s conversations with foreign leaders. It was the Obama administration’s practice to assign someone who was listening in on the call to draft the readout for the media to ensure that what was being said about the call was accurate, according to a senior Obama administration official who took part in drafting readouts during that administration.

To write a readout that included things that weren’t discussed was “out of bounds,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

Ned Price, a former NSC spokesman under Obama and now director of policy at National Security Action, said it wasn’t uncommon for readouts to provide a “more artful and formal recap” of a foreign leader call.

“But it’s certainly not normal for the readout to be nearly entirely divorced from the reality of the call,” he said. “The discrepancies between the transcript and the readout in this case are profound, but they may be par for the course in this administration.”

A former Trump White House official familiar with the process said that readouts and rough transcripts are produced separately. The rough transcripts are produced by those who listen in on the call and policy experts in the NSC. Media teams in the NSC and the White House press secretary’s office together work to produce the readout.

In the Trump administration, a draft readout of what is expected to be discussed is prepared by the policy team along with the talking points that are prepared for president before the call, although Trump does not always use them. The individual didn’t know whether the draft readouts were changed to reflect what is actually said. But the individual said that there is no “procedural step” that’s in place to ensure that the two are in agreement.

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AP Writers Aamer Madhani and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.

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