Was The Trump Phone Call With Zelensky Paused For Discussion On US Side?

It’s Jim here.

Much has been made about the apparent discrepancy between the length of the rough transcript of the Donald Trump-Volodymyr Zelensky telephone call on July 25. The best analysis I’ve seen on this topic is in today’s Washington Post, where the number of words in a transcript and the reported duration of the corresponding call were compared for this call and for another conversation where interpreters were needed on both ends of the call:

The memorandum of Trump’s call with Zelensky appears remarkably different in speed and content from the full transcripts of calls between President Trump and foreign leaders The Washington Post obtained in 2017.

The transcript of a 24-minute call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in which both the participants spoke English, included roughly 3,200 words, or about 133 words per minute. A 53-minute call with then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, in which both Trump and the Mexican president spoke through interpreters, included roughly 5,500 words, or about 102 words per minute.

The White House summary of Trump’s 30-minute call with Zelensky — which included interpreters because Zelensky spoke Ukrainian while Trump spoke English — includes fewer than 2,000 words, or roughly 65 words per minute. That suggests that the rough transcript of the Zelensky call includes about half the number of words that would be expected if the call had proceeded at the same or similar pace as the previous calls.

The article also notes the presence of the ellipses and does a good job of tying each instance of the ellipses to the contexts where they appear. The first two are in Trump’s discussion of Crowdstrike and the third relates directly to Joe Biden.

The article also does a great job of debunking one White House theory put forward about the ellipses, claiming that they merely indicate that Trump’s voice trailed off. However, the article documents that past practice was to insert “[inaudible]” to mark such trailing off, so this doesn’t match what was done in the past.

Of course, the simplest explanation that many are going with here is that Trump may have said something so incriminating and outrageous that the White House simply couldn’t allow it to get out, and so they edited it out. But I began to wonder if there might be something else that happened here, in addition to eliding incriminating evidence.

Is it possible that intelligence agents monitoring the call heard something so improper that they put the call on the electronic equivalent of “hold” and communicated to Trump directly that he had gone over the line? Coupling that thought with the knowledge from the whistleblower complaint that there were other instances where Trump transcripts were hidden on the code-word server, I wondered if there had ever been a press report of a Trump phone call being briefly interrupted. Early in my searching, I hit on an article that fits into this idea incredibly well. It has the bonus that it applies to the first known phone call between Trump and Vladimir Putin. What I found was a Reuters article dated February 9, 2017:

In his first call as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump denounced a treaty that caps U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads as a bad deal for the United States, according to two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official with knowledge of the call.

When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty, known as New START, Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was, these sources said.

The article goes on to deliver what now seems to be an incredibly important tidbit in what would have been seen at the time as a meaningless aside from Sean Spicer:

The White House declined to comment on the details of the call. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump knew what the New START treaty is but had turned to his aides for an opinion during the call with Putin. He said the notes from the call would not have conveyed that.

So, Spicer informs us that at least this once, a call was put on hold for discussions on the US side. More importantly, he states that such discussion would not have appeared in the notes from the call.

Is that what happened on July 25? Was the Trump-Zelensky call put on hold for the US side to speak privately with Trump? If so, it seems that such a discussion could account for at least part of length deficit for the rough transcript. It would also be something worthy of intense followup. Was the discussion primarily with political staff, as claimed by Spicer for the first Putin call, or were members of the intelligence community warning against where Trump had taken the conversation?

51 replies
  1. Mister Sterling says:

    Jim, you are on the right track. There are also news stories about how John F. Kelly, on at least one occasion, Muted Trump’s line so he could coach Trump to get back to the purpose of the call.

  2. 200Toros says:

    Excellent supposition Jim. If ever there were a time to pause a call and try to knock some sense into him, that was it. We still need to see the actual transcript of the call, not just the readout, for sure. He bragged about the transcript yesterday so no reason not to release that.
    But the narrative has changed, again, since this morning, as you probably know, trump openly asked both the Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens, on the White House lawn, to reporters. I guess they are going with the “can’t be illegal if he did it in public” angle.
    Also not seeing much about the fact that the Ukraine’s investigation into Paul Manafort was shut down last year. I guess that’s only bad if its the Bidens’ being investigated.

    • rosalind says:

      yeah, was struck at his claim the “transcript” already released was word for word, comma for comma. wishful thinking that his statement OKs the release of any real transcript hidden in the Sekrit Safe.

      • Vicks says:

        He also claimed a win because when the democrats demanded the transscript they didn’t think there was one, and now they wish they hadn’t because his perfect transcript shows that nothing the whistle blower said was true.

      • Tom says:

        The record of the July 25th phone call is titled a Memorandum and clearly states that it is “not a verbatim account”. So much has attention has been paid to the President’s comment: “I would like you to do us a favor though …” that I wonder why Trump never defended himself on the grounds that the released Memorandum was only a summary of the phone call and not a word-for-word transcript; in other words, that he never actually asked Zelensky for a favor.

    • P J Evans says:

      Robberies are illegal whether they’re in public or in private. That’s a ridiculous argument to try using.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Good thought. But I can’t get passed that this is Trump. He does not take direction: he fires those who try to give it, or to tell him the law won’t allow it, or that it threatens more important national security goals.

    Nothing is more important than whatever Trump wants when he wants it. That’s one reason he is so dangerous. The list of former Trump officials who could attest to that is legion.

    • Americana says:

      At this point, I’m curious just how many “former Trump officials” would willingly testify and deliver incriminating evidence about Trump. It certainly seems former Sec/State Rex Tillerson had some experiences where Trump performed an end-run around Tillerson and Tillerson was aware Trump did that for scandalous reasons. He’d be one of the guys who ought to be asked for testimony ASAP.

    • Stacey Lyn says:

      I think it’s useful to consider when researching Trumpian things that he behaves like a virus. He presents early on in his time in office in his sort of ‘out of his element’ halting sort of way, where he was still largely amenable to direction and guidance because he was such a fish out of water that to prevent his own embarrassment he allowed himself to be directed about things–like being at your first fancy dinner party and not knowing which fork to use. Then as the ‘anti-bodies’ around him–those people we’ve been referring to as ‘guard rails’–sort of lose their ability to tamp down the virus in it’s current stage we look again and see that he’s mutated, the virus has shifted something about how it works and moves about its environment.

      As Trump experienced his environment as being more pliable to him than he felt like he needed to be to it, he seated himself more into his ‘home room persona’, his Brand of who he sees himself to be and the same antibiotics that used to curb the virus have now stopped working altogether and other stimulus-response patterns are evident.

      You can sort of trace some of the ‘learning’ that the virus (Trump) did over time. When the information from his Australian and Mexican leader calls got leaked early on, he mutated from the “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing” give the call transcript to everyone because it shows me being a world leader talking to other world leaders and who wouldn’t want to spread that far and wide? to ‘oops, that ended poorly’, knee jerk reaction to a great deal more restricted than would be normal, which ended up with this super secret vault idea when he’d done things that everyone around him knew were going to bite him in the ass.

      I must note that SOOOOO very many things that are told about how his staff functions around him is exactly the way the staff functioned around him on the Apprentice. He’d do some off the cuff decision that made no sense to anyone and the staff would have to go around reverse-engineering things to make that decision make sense. Virtually every story you hear fits that story pattern about him. But within that model, there is this mutating virus that learns how to become less affected by the antibodies around him, and each round of new antibiotics that he’s given (new round of staff around him) are LESS potent, not more potent, than the ones he just mutated past. He’s a virus that kills the antibodies rather than the other way around!

  4. Michael says:

    I read the linked article about 4 hours ago. Its explanations of ellipses and dashes and procedures were interesting enough, but what knocked me back (in my ca. 1906 banker’s chair) – and prompted me to make a PDF of the page right then – was the final two paragraphs. To wit:

    “Such phone calls also typically create at least two types of documents: a verbatim transcript made by note-takers in the White House Situation Room and an EDITED SUMMARY that is more WIDELY CIRCULATED.

    “‘The one that was released is not the one the Situation Room created,’ said one person familiar with the creation of records of calls with foreign leaders […]. ‘That’s just not possible.'”
    (EMPHASIS and ellipses are mine)

    So, is the document that lit a fire under H.R. just a SFW version of an unaltered document that reposes in the W.H.’s SCI bin?

    • Jim White says:

      Absolutely. Getting that non-edited verbatim copy will be key, if it even still exists and can be retrieved (along with all the others that have been stashed there!).

      • Frank Probst says:

        There’s a wrinkle here, though, wrt to getting any other documents that were improperly put in this server. How exactly do you do that? That server contains some of the countries most important secrets. I don’t see a viable way to put together some sort of “taint team” to sort through all of the documents and separate out the ones that were hidden in there. It’s just too much of a security nightmare. You could conceivably look at all of the documents that were put in there by the same person who added the Zelensky call, but even that might be too much to deal with. You’re going to need someone to come forward and explain who made the decision to hide the calls, and then you need to know who actually hid them. And the turnover at the Trump White House is so rapid that you’re probably dealing with a string of individuals, not just one person.

        • Ken Muldrew says:

          Unless the President and his spawn are wantonly handing those secrets over to other countries; then there’s not much risk in letting actual Americans (say those on a Congressional intelligence committee) see them.

        • Americana says:

          It really doesn’t matter who was delegated to doing the physical hiding of these phone calls because the decision to hide such questionable communications would have been made higher up the food chain. We need the names of the higher ups and we need their testimony as to whom they reported and who made the decisions to segregate these problematic communications in that ultra-private server.

        • Ruthie says:

          Maybe you could narrow it down by searching by date. I would think it would have been added nearly as soon as the official transcript was completed, presumably that day or maybe the next. Those who were aware of the danger would have wanted to act swiftly to contain it.

  5. JAFive says:

    The most recent large body of these that have been released, to my knowledge, is the telcons between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair: https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/48779 I can find no ellipses anywhere in those telcons and it’s an extensive collection. Of course, practices may have changed since then. The Clinton telcons also explicitly use “(Pause)” on at least one instance (p. 80 of that PDF) to indicate a pause.

    It does seem, though, that if there were a pause of more than a second or two, someone would remark on it (“Sorry”, “Just a Moment”, etc.). Five or ten seconds of dead air with no response seems unlikely to me?

  6. CD54 says:

    When we were kids our parents used “dead air” to up the pressure on us for interrogations and orders.

    I can see Trump using this as a power move, but I can’t see him giving up the chance to admire himself speaking.

  7. I am sam says:

    Nixon had his 18 ½ minute gap on the tape he or his secretary erased in Watergate. It looks like Trump has about 1650 words missing, assuming a normal speaking/translation of 120 words/min. At average sentence length of 15-20 words, there are 94 sentences missing. Roughly Trump has a 13 ¾ minute gap. He needs to work with his henchmen to improve their erasure techniques.

    • Stacey says:

      My issue with this “transcript” all along is that the only thing consistent with how Trump speaks is those sentence fragment ellipses where he uses partial sentences to sort of stand in for larger thoughts he tends to ‘vague over’ when he’s speaking. The fact that Zelensky gets any words in edge wise is an indication that this call was not Trump’s naturally speaking with anyone. I still think it’s a “Perfect Call” because it was scripted, either before it happened, with Rudy giving Zelensky ‘your line….Trump’s line’ and they get on there and ‘play their parts’ or after the fact, when they needed to produce something, they created this bull shit that doesn’t resemble anything like a conversation with Trump. However, it happened that this is what we have, I think it shall prove to look like Barr’s version of the Mueller Report! It’s not like that’s a play they haven’t run many times before, especially Barr, who’s been running that exact play for his whole time in government ‘service’. The ole “Here’s a summary of the thing I’m not going to show you” play.

  8. punaise says:

    Operator, well could you help me pause this call?
    There’s someone that I really wanted to talk to
    Thank you for your time, ah, you’ve been so much more than kind
    And you can keep the $400m in military aid

  9. Eureka says:

    The night of the memo release, I had conservatively estimated here that the actual transcript would be 1.5x to approaching 2x as long as the memo, and– finding that (as I thought to myself) a big discrepancy, even for the repetitious and crimey– had added that maybe they also had put Zelensky on hold.

    You’ve got nice evidence for intermittent holds, which may account for some of the time; I wonder also if they can count the call time as ‘started’ with an answer or connection, but leave someone cold on the line for a gap (just ‘because,’ or for advance prep, or continuing arguments in the Oval about what the parameters of the call should be).

    Just trying to fairly entertain as many sources of the distance as possible.

    But they probably just hacked out entire turns-at-talk (and corresponding topics), besides whatever’s under the ellipses.

    • P J Evans says:

      Honest editing would have had something like “call on hold for x minutes” even if it didn’t say why.

      • Eureka says:

        I wonder if there was another US-side speaker whose talk has been stripped (perhaps on the assumption–fair or not– that it was just ‘background advising’ when instead it was hard-selling; even the whistleblower didn’t name (or know about) e.g. Pompeo listening on the call).

        It’s (also) possible that something like a Ukrainian translator-speaker present on the US side, and better practiced at the Trumpian script, was giving firm scheme direction (under the guise of translator talk, so whacked from memo). That would be a smart way to be crimey-er about it. Rudy and State were locking everyone else down, why not also via a Ukrainian speaker on the US side?

        In-on-the-game excess translator talk would substantially reduce the length versus expectations.

  10. Rayne says:

    Documents from Volker’s deposition released just a bit ago. Utterly damning. All of the state personnel must have been in on shaping Zelensky’s statement in order to free up aid in exchange for commitment to an investigation into 2016. Only person who might not have been was Yovanovitch because she was recalled.

    Docs at: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6451371-Volker-docs.html

    Sickening. Zelensky must have felt trapped, assuming he was on the straight.

    • Eureka says:

      There are so many smocking guns it’s like a Wassily Kandinsky painting.

      Ugh. An “unequivocal draft,” “clean” at that.

      But this part and others like it are so sad, the in-the-grit quagmires:

      [9/8/19, 12:37:28 PM] Bill Taylor: The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)

  11. Dead Last says:

    It seems to me that there may be some bizarre timing between the resignation of Ambassador Jon Huntsman (father of Abby Huntsman). He resigned August 6, 2019. What is the probability that he was unaware of what Trump was doing in Ukraine? He claims he quit to run for Governor of Utah again. After being Ambassador to China, Russia, and having run for President — the most interesting thing he could do is run for governor? It would make more sense, to me at least, that he quit because he was aware of how things were falling apart in eastern Europe. Plus, his resignation came after the July 25th call. Coinkidink?

    • Rayne says:

      There was other timing, by the clock+calendar as well. Effective date of resignation was 03-OCT, two years to the day from his confirmation and assumption of office. Resignation submitted +/- 60 days, 2 months before his exit, ample time to search for/nominate/confirm replacement.

      Is Huntsman a to-the-letter person?

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