The highly-anticipated “transcript” of President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky contains several ellipses, but one comes at a crucial point.
Here’s the passage:
“The other thing, There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me.”
An ellipsis, according to lexico.com, is “The omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues.” It is indicated by the set of three dots.
In common practice, people also use an ellipsis to indicate when a person pauses or if their sentence trails off without coming to an ending.
So did whoever prepared the document leave something out? Or did President Trump simply trail off his sentence? What were the notetakers trying to convey?
Questions about the ellipses may be nitpicky, but they highlight the difference between a real transcript or a tape recording and the document released by the White House.
The document contains a footnote saying it is “not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and [National Security Council] policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place.”
Another couple of ellipses also can be found earlier in the document, when Trump asks Zelensky as a “favor” to look into CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm that investigated hacking for the Democrats in the 2016 election.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
Larry Pfeiffer, former senior director of the White House Situation Room under President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2013, said the ellipses seemed “a little unusual” but he leaned toward an innocent interpretation.
Usually, if the situation room was unable to discern what Trump was saying they would attach a note saying, “inaudible” or “few words missed,” he noted. The footnote on the document also says it will use “inaudible” for “portions of a conversation that the notetaker was unable to hear.”
In this case, Pfeiffer said in a telephone interview, “I would lean towards thinking perhaps there was a pause, a longer pause than in normal sentences. That would be my guess.”
He also said it was possible that some staffer felt that it would be more elegant to replace the word “inaudible” with an ellipsis.
Joel Willett, a former CIA officer who was detailed to the Situation Room in 2014, wrote Wednesday in a Washington Post op-ed that he was one of the staffers who listened in to President Barack Obama’s phone calls.
“While some may be skeptical that a record released by the White House will be complete, never once in my experience was a transcript edited to removed politically damaging or even personally embarrassing comments. To the contrary, it was critical that a full record be made to ensure that relationships and policies developed during these calls could be advanced by the president’s team and other parts of the federal government. Foreign policy is bigger than any one person, even the president,” Willett wrote.
But Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Obama presidency, told Reuters Tuesday such a document would likely be incomplete because the note-takers usually do not include issues that could be controversial if they became public.
“Typically a note-taker will write notes about what the principal says in a fashion that does not embarrass their principal,” said Farkas.
“What was said in between the ellipses — and is it a modern-day version of the 18-minute gap on the Nixon tapes?” tweeted Washington Post reporter Matt Viser.