The Slatest

Today in Conservative Media: It’s a “Transcript,” and It Vindicates Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a press conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a press conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the White House released a summary of President Donald Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is now under scrutiny as part of an official impeachment investigation that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched on Tuesday. The details of the conversation and what they do or do not prove about Trump’s culpability are being closely analyzed and hotly debated across the media. And there are, unsurprisingly, significant disparities in the way conservative and mainstream news outlets are covering the impeachment inquiry and the phone conversation between the two leaders.

For one thing, mainstream outlets are more focused on questions surrounding the very nature of the document that the White House released. Articles in the Daily Wire, the Blaze, Breitbart, the Federalist, and the Daily Caller have been referring to the document simply as a “transcript” of the call between Trump and Zelensky. Yet questions about the accuracy of the “transcript” have been a point of contention, especially given that in 1974 President Richard Nixon released misleading and incomplete transcripts from tapes of his conversations in the White House regarding Watergate. The document that the White House released Wednesday includes a note of caution:

A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place. A number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation. 

The New York Times’ main article on the document refers to it as a “reconstruction of a July phone call,” and mentions the note of caution. Articles in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have been referring to the document as a “rough transcript” and not “verbatim.” Most conservative outlets, which have been highlighting that there was no explicit quid pro quo of aid for investigating a political rival, did not qualify the term “transcript.”

When it comes to the actual contents of the document, conservative and mainstream outlets have at times emphasized different portions of the conversation. For example, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple observed that the Federalist’s article on the document does not mention Joe Biden whatsoever, much less the allegation that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine to pressure its government into investigating Biden. The article instead depicts the discussion as centering on Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election. “It is unclear how a United States president attempting to get to the bottom of foreign interference in democratic U.S. elections constitutes an abuse of power,” the Federalist piece reads. This point is similar to the argument in one of the White House’s leaked talking points concerning the call: “It is entirely appropriate for the President to ask a foreign leader to investigate any connection between his county and attempted interference in the 2016 election.”

Other conservative outlets have emphasized Trump’s disputed allegation during the call that Biden bragged about leveraging aid to Ukraine in order to shut down an investigation into his son Hunter. In its talking points, the White House argues, “When a high-ranking U.S. government official, like then Vice-President Biden, brags that he used his official position to derail an investigation in another country that could have impacted his son, it is appropriate for the President to suggest that the matter be looked into.” Media Matters suggests that Trump’s assertion about Biden bragging mirrors a point that Fox News host Sean Hannity has repeatedly been making about “bragging” on his show since April.

The Daily Wire article covering the document release reads, “Joe Biden bragged in January 2018 that he promised a $1 billion loan to Ukraine if the previous prosecutor investigating the company were removed from his post.” The Daily Caller’s article reads, “Joe Biden bragged in January 2018 that he promised a $1 billion loan to Ukraine if the previous prosecutor investigating the company were removed from his post,” and the Washington Examiners’s article reads, “The former vice president bragged in 2018 that he threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees if Ukraine didn’t fire top prosecutor Viktor Shokin.” The New York Times, on the other hand, calls the allegation into question: “But Mr. Trump does repeatedly mention Mr. Biden, saying at one point that the former vice president had bragged about stopping a prosecution involving the company that his son worked for — a charge for which there is no public evidence.” The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal only quote the allegation in Trump’s words, rather than reporting them as fact. Biden did speak favorably about convincing Ukraine to fire a state prosecutor during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, but did not mention his son’s company. There is further no evidence that Biden was trying to help his son.

Another topic on which right-wing coverage and the White House’s talking points seem to align slightly is the idea that Trump had only brought up aid to Ukraine during the call to criticize Germany. The talking points read, “Assistance to Ukraine was mentioned by President Trump only to stress how much the United States is doing and how other countries, like Germany, need to do their fair share.” The Daily Caller’s article on the release reads, “The call confirms that the president had concerns that other European countries, particularly Germany, were not giving enough aid to Ukraine.” The Daily Signal piece “6 Key Points From Trump’s Call to Ukraine’s President” reports, “When Trump did talk about aid to Ukraine, it was in the context of other nations not doing their part to help the former Soviet republic.” Mainstream outlets have complicated this assertion, noting that Trump had initially stated that the reason for withholding aid was due to corruption in Ukraine, rather than lack of contributions from other countries, before changing his story.

Conservative outlets are somewhat split, though, on what this document means for Trump’s presidency and possible impeachment. On Wednesday afternoon, the front-page headline on National Review was “The Trump–Ukraine Transcript Contains Evidence of a Quid Pro Quo.” The article, by noted conservative Trump critic David French, argues that there is evidence of a “profound abuse of power” in the document, but cautions that further investigation is necessary. Featured prominently on the Washington Examiner’s homepage was an op-ed by executive editor Philip Klein: “The Ukraine transcript is not a dud, it is bad news for Trump.” Yet, the majority of conservative sites seems to take contents of the document as a vindication of Trump. The front-page headline on the Daily Caller’s website read, “Quid No Show,” while the Washington Times published “Transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine shows no link to military aid, refuting Democrats’ charge.” This perhaps glosses over the fact that Trump brings up an investigation into Biden shortly after discussing aid and complaining that Ukraine had not been “reciprocal” in helping the U.S.