Update: Thursday morning, the White House updated their transcript of the Trump/Putin press conference to include the first part of Jeff Mason’s question. As for the omission in the video, the White House said this was due to the audio mixer not raising the levels on the reporter’s microphone in time. They said the transcript error was “not malicious,” as the stenographer went according to the audio feed. This is supported by a Washington Post report that gave a similar reason for the incomplete coverage of the question.
One of the most damning moments in President Donald Trump‘s joint press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin no longer happened. At least, that’s how it would appear if you go by the official White House records of the event.
At one point in the presser, Reuters reporter Jeff Mason asked Putin, “President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?”
“Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal,” Putin responded.
The White House’s transcript of the event leaves out the first part of Mason’s question, about wanting Trump to win the election. By omitting this, it makes it seem that Mason was asking about what Putin had discussed prior to the question, which was Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation.
There’s a simple explanation for this omission, which is that people were talking at the same time. Indeed, other transcripts of the event, like Bloomberg‘s, left out the first part of Mason’s question.
What cannot be quite as easily explained is why the beginning of Mason’s question was edited out of the video of the event posted on the White House’s YouTube channel. Around the 2:18:23 mark of the video, Putin finishes his previous response, and the next question from Mason does not include that part where he asked about whether Putin wanted Trump to win.
Compare this to the following video of the event from NBC (relevant part at the 4:36:50 mark).
In the latter video, Mason can be clearly heard asking Putin if he wanted Trump to win the election, and Putin can then be heard responding to that question.
Eliminating those portions from the video and transcript poses a legal problem, as there are laws surrounding how official records are handled. The Presidential Records Act governs the management of :
[D]ocumentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof, created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.
The Act includes very specific instructions for how such records should be maintained, or–when necessary–disposed. Disposal is deemed appropriate if the records “no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value.” It would be hard to argue that an official transcript and video of a press conference featuring the president and Vladimir Putin would fit that bill, especially so soon after it took place.
Now, if the records of the press conference are not deemed to fall under the category of “presidential records,” there’s still the Federal Records Act. That law applies to:
[A]ll recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or because of the informational value of data in them;
There is also a law against “concealment, removal, or mutilation” of government records.
It would be difficult to prove cases under any of these statutes, however, given the defense that the changes were not made with the intent to hide anything, rather for some other editorial purpose. Again, the transcript issue was not the White House’s alone, and it’s arguable that the video was edited to match, and to skip past the moment where multiple people were talking.
Whether you buy that defense, or course, is a different story. The edit clearly changes the meaning and nature of what is presented as being said. In the White House’s version, Putin sounds like he’s expressing support for cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The full version indicates that he specifically wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, providing a motive for alleged offenses and possible collusion with the Trump campaign meant to achieve that goal.
[Image via White House screengrab]