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21 Feb 2020 9:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump is still controlling the narrative — and it rests with the word 'transcript'

    "Read the transcript" has become a kind of inescapable mantra in the impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump. The thing is, though, it's not a transcript, writes Emma Shortis.

    As the impeachment trial of Donald J Trump got underway in the United States Senate this week, the President finished up his dinner in the Swiss Alps and tweeted it again: "READ THE TRANSCRIPTS!"

    Ever since the emergence of a whistleblower complaint alleging that the President of the United States solicited an illegal quid pro quo during a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the so-called "transcript" of the conversation has played a crucial role in the politics of impeachment.

    The White House first released the "transcript" of the call between Trump and Zelenskiy in September, in direct response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's announcement of a formal impeachment enquiry.

    The "transcript" of the 25 July phone call was apparently meant to exonerate the President.

    It was, according to Trump, a "perfect" call in which he had clearly "done nothing wrong".

    An increasing number of people disagree with that assessment.

    We don't have actual 'transcripts'

    In the White House's own documents, the President is recorded as asking the Ukrainian President to "do us a favour". Evidence is mounting that the President has committed multiple impeachable offenses.

    Nevertheless, Trump and his supporters continue to insist there's nothing to it. "Read the transcript" has become a kind of inescapable mantra — Trump fans are even printing it on their T-shirts.

    The thing is, though, it's not a transcript.

    It says so right there on the front page of the document itself: "CAUTION: A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text of this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC Policy Staff assigned to listen".

    This record is, quite explicitly, not a verbatim transcript. It is a TelCon. A TelCon is a memorandum that describes a conversation; it doesn't record it exactly.

    In the case of the July 25 call, that description was written and edited by Trump's staff. Some of these same staff were apparently so concerned about the content of this phone call that they moved the actual transcript of the call to a highly classified server and then restricted access to it.

    That move alone is yet another striking breach of protocol when it comes to these kinds of documents, and apparently it's not the first time it has happened — transcripts of Trump's calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi royals have also been moved.

    So we don't have actual "transcripts" of any of those calls.

    These are the days of 'alternative facts'

    But that hasn't stopped the TelCon being described as a "transcript" absolutely everywhere. Even when journalists clearly understand that what we are dealing with is not a transcript, the word appears constantly.

    The New York Times, CNN, Buzzfeed, The Conversation, the Wall Street Journal, and more, all fall into the trap of calling it a "transcript". Sometimes it's a "reconstructed", "edited" or "rough" transcript, but it's a "transcript" nonetheless.

    This might seem like a small gripe. But it really matters.

    The fact that the word "transcript" keeps appearing — even if it is hedged by qualifiers or also described as a "memo" or "summary" in the same breath — implies a level of transparency that just doesn't exist.

    Trump himself has incorrectly called the document "an exact transcript of my call, done by very talented people that do this — exact, word for word".

    Leaving aside the fact that the TelCon we do have is pretty damning, do we really trust Trump officials to provide us with accurate information?

    In days gone by, historians and journalists could generally trust that TelCons — which usually remain classified long after the fact anyway — were fairly accurate reflections of what had been said.

    But these are the days of "alternative facts". Witnesses testifying as part of the impeachment enquiry have expressed considerable doubt about the document's accuracy.

    National Security Council member Alexander Vindman, for example, has alleged that the ellipses in the "transcript" represent crucial missing information deliberately left out by staffers.

    Like the TelCon, we need to approach Trump with 'caution'

    Still, that fact that the word "transcript" keeps appearing, whether qualified or not, implies a verbatim, accurate and objective record of a conversation, exactly as it happened, just like Trump claims.

    That is not what we have.

    And that matters because it's yet another example of Trump controlling the narrative, dictating how we frame issues, and distorting reality.

    Trump calls it a "transcript" and we follow — we qualify, and we hedge, and we fact check, but we still use the word.

    In doing so, we inadvertently fall into Trump's narrative trap, which alleges that the entire impeachment enquiry is an illegitimate effort to either "steal" the 2016 election back, or rig the next one.

    We participate in, and facilitate, Trump's dangerous undermining of American democracy.

    It's just like when Trump brings up something like the Biden conspiracy, or Hillary Clinton's emails, or says there are "very fine people on both sides" of a white supremacy protest.

    Even though we know there's nothing in what he says, or that it's an outright lie, or that white supremacists are not in fact "very fine people" — we still end up having a debate about it.

    We discuss it, endlessly, and in doing so confer legitimacy.

    That's why it matters. Words matter. A "transcript" is very different to a TelCon.

    And that's why, when it comes to Trump, we should always heed the warning of the very TelCon at the centre of it all: "CAUTION".

    Emma Shortis is a research officer at the Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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