The Transcript Isn’t A Transcript

The White House said it was going to release a transcript of the phone call between Trump and President Zelenskyy of the Ukraine. They’ve now released a document (As of Oct, 2021 this link is no longer functional. It appears that the “transcript” document Trump had placed on the website has been withdrawn or moved by the Biden administration. Other stories, such as by Vox, who had previously included the document are also without a direct link. Not sure if that will ever be fixed.) but the document itself gives us a pretty strong warning that should give us all pause about how this disclosure is being reported:

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 t_o listen.and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place. A numper of factors can affect ‘the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation.

The word “inaudible” is used to indifate portions of a conversation that the notetaker was unable to hear.

Nonetheless, USA Today gives us this:

Trump administration releases transcript of call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky amid impeachment inquiry

CBS News gives us this:

Trump call transcript shows he pressed Ukrainian president to probe Biden — live updates

CNBC’s article is headlined:

Trump authorizes release of transcript of controversial Ukraine call that mentioned Joe Biden

And no less than that vaunted bastion of journalism, the NY Times writes their headline without any ambiguity:

Transcript: Trump’s Call With the Ukrainian President

Forbes, of all sycophantic outlets, is actually the voice of reason and caution here, despite calling the document a “transcript” in the headline:

Trump’s Ukraine Transcript Reportedly Won’t Contain Entire Conversation

What Forbes says is actually a fair summary of the problem

President Trump said he would release the “complete” and “unredacted transcript” of his July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president Wednesday, but multiple reports state that what gets released is unlikely to be word-for-word, per longstanding White House rules.

  • According to Reuters, White House rules on phone calls between the president and a foreign leader would likely mean a transcript would be put together from notes taken by several U.S. officials who listened in.
  • The note-takers are typically National Security Council or Central Intelligence Agency officials.
  • The final official document of a phone call can range from what looks like a word-for-word transcript, a memo or a short summary.
  • And the Washington Post reported that Trump is unlikely to have tape recordings of the phone call. Recordings have not been made since the 70s.

So when you hear that a “transcript” has been released, don’t believe it. Maintain your skepticism. There may very well be no recording back to which we can compare Trump’s document and every single person involved in the preparation of the document we do have answers solely and ultimately to Trump. If in conversations with others who refer to it as a transcript, it might be useful and appropriate, depending on context, to correct the “transcript” language of the person or persons with whom you’re speaking.

And if they doubt you, refer them right back to the official warning on the actual document released:

CAUTION: A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion.





  1. brucegee1962 says

    Well, if they’ve tried to clean it up somehow to protect him, then they did a sloppy job. Even without an explicit prid pro quo, asking a foreign leader to get dirt on an opponent (exactly what Mueller spent all that money trying to prove) is eminently impeachable.

  2. blf says

    The Gruaniad’s headline, Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president: read the full memorandum. (I do not, at the moment, see an article or analysis specifically about the memo, albeit it’s certainly covered in the current live States blog, presently entitled Trump-Ukraine scandal: memo shows president pushed for Biden investigation.)

    France24’s headline, Memo shows Trump asked Ukraine president to investigate political rival Biden (video).

    Al Jazeera’s homepage uses Memo confirms Trump pushed Ukraine to investigate Biden, but the linked-to article is a live blog with the current headline Trump impeachment inquiry: All the latest updates. They have a separate article, Read the White House memo of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s leader.

    The Irish Times’ headline is ‘Do us a favour’: Trump asked Ukraine to look into Biden’s activities.

  3. says


    That’s part of my point. It’s not even a verbatim transcript, it could be fudged in any number of ways, and the version that they decided to release (which it would be reasonable to believe would be the version most favorable to the administration) is STILL damning evidence of a crime.

    But also I worry about over-reliance on the word “transcript” when, after Donald is in a corner, that allows his defenders to say, “But it wasn’t a transcript! You’re assuming that it’s accurate when it has a warning that it’s not verbatim-accurate!” Laziness now provides assistance with the Trump defense later.

  4. Ridana says

    Having read the “transcript” I think that either the Tangerine Dreamer dictated it himself, or he’s got the people in the situation room so stewed in Trumpspeak that they couldn’t help but write it up as if he did. I just find it difficult to believe that the President of Ukraine speaks exactly like the Cheeto in Chief. I know he was ass-kissing to save his life and country, probably literally, during that phone call, but it’s such well-honed ass-kissing to the Presidouche’s specific sweet spots that the only conclusion is that the whole document is either a fiction of his deranged mind, or else Zelenskyy has done his homework watching the Pumpkin’s speeches and learning all his favorite tummy rubs. No wonder he thought the call was “perfect.” That’s how he’d describe it if he were planning to dictate it himself, right?

    President Zelenskyy: We used quite a few of your
    skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example for our elections and yes it is true that these were unique
    elections. We were in a unique situation that we were able to achieve a unique success. I’m able to tell you the following; the first time, you called me to congratulate me when I won my presidential election, and the second time you are now calling me when my party won the parliamentary election. …
    Well yes, to tell you the truth, we are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country. We brought in many many new people. Not the old politicians, not the typical politicians, because we want to have a new format and a new type of government. You are a great teacher for us and in that.

    Now why would he say “I’m able to tell you” and then tell him stuff he already knows? He might as well have said, “I can tell you this–people are saying.” And “many, many new people” and the repetitions of “unique.” Those are signature Bestwords tics.
    One more thing – I dl’ed the doc from the site. When I cut and pasted from the pdf doc, what I copied and what pasted were not identical. E.g. “use it as an example for our elections” came through as “use .it as an example to·r
    our ele.ctions.” Why should that be? Is that evidence of tampering during the creation of the pdf? Or just some weird anomaly of the Adobe software vs Firefox? Marcus? 😀

  5. says


    That’s very interesting that Europe’s outlets are reporting it that way. Here in Canada they’re also reporting it using more accurate language:
    Trump asked Ukraine president to investigate Biden, call summary shows

    Does the USA have the worst national press in the English-speaking world? Up next we’ll hear from some Americans who support the claim and some Australians who beg to differ.


    Marcus is, indeed, more qualified to answer those questions than I am, but I suspect that the answer is that somehow when a document is scanned into a PDF there’s an interaction with an image-to-text program that leaves images it can’t easily classify as letters or punctuation in a photo-realistic group of pixels as the scanner saw them. Our human minds might be much more able to look at those dots and see a smudged letter than the image-to-text program is, which might result in what appears to be a fluid and continuous representation of text in the document despite being mixed text-and-image to the Adobe software.

    Once you have that, it might be that you can highlight and copy the text, but the images come through garbled. Again, this isn’t my field and is just a guess, but it seems likely.

  6. blf says

    Whilst the PDF might have been tampered with, I tend to doubt it. As far I can work out using a few diagnostic tools on the downloaded PDF, it seems to have been generated as a (presumably rasterized) image by a SAVIN MP C4503 colour printer / scanner at 2019-09-25T07:41:07-04:00; i.e., at about 7:41am this morning, Washington DC time. The embedded modification date is a few minutes later (about 7:54am), which I’m unconvinced is significant. The point here is that whilst it certainly is possible to modify a rasterized image in a few minutes (assuming the metadata itself hasn’t been tampered with), that’s really not very much time, even for a competent person. More likely, I guess, is the (semi?-)automatic addition of “unclassified” stamps or document-IDs, i.e., basically benign processing.

    The other point is being an image, i.e. no underlying text, copy-and-paste (or OCR (which I tried)) will produce slightly “weird” results as the software tries to make sense of the blobs and turn them into codepoints (letters et al).

    I am not an expert on PDF, images, OCR, or copy-and-paste.

  7. Ridana says

    Thanks for the input. 🙂 The other thing that tells me this is mostly faked is that when Zelenskyy was supposedly talking about his election victory, Orange Glo didn’t immediately try to one-up him and start babbling about how the polls were against him and he won the greatest victory in the history of America. There is just no way he could’ve resisted. Even if he dictated this, that would surely be in there, and someone edited it out (or else the unnamed notetakers just didn’t bother noting it for the 100th time). 😀

  8. colinday says

    Sorry, the original has “memorialize” (which is a word but probably not what they meant). I wasn’t confused about what they intended, but I thought they might botch the memo.

  9. says

    Why would there not be a recording? This is historical records and an hour long mid quality MP3 is 20mb or so.

    I have a nice Zoom M4 ($300) mp3 recorder and a 128gb usb stick the White House could have; it’d record store months of the driveller-in-chief’s ranting.

  10. says

    Besides: there has to be some audio source that went into the computer that did the voice recognition. Let me guess: that is in the classified safe and we will endure months of argument about why it is classified and then Rose Marie Woods will fat-finger and delete it.

  11. says

    I know I’m going all in on the 3 comment rule, but it is becoming apparent that the “transcript” is unusually short for a conversation of that length. Which means it’s doctored, of course.

    Whoever edited it must have had such a tough time wallowing in the boss’ drivellations without succumbing to the temptation to run an idiot filter over them.

  12. says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    I know I’m going all in on the 3 comment rule, but it is becoming apparent that the “transcript” is unusually short for a conversation of that length. Which means it’s doctored, of course.

    Obviously it’s not verbatim, the memo even states that, but one thing that has been missing from the observations that the text is particularly short for a call of that length is that the memo is only recording the English of what was surely a two-language call, where Trump says something, it’s translated for Zelenskyy, Zelenskyy says something, that something is translated into English for Trump.

    Ending up with a near-transcript of half the length of a normal 30 minute call is actually probably what we should expect for an interpreted call like this one. Comparing the word-count to an all-English conversation of 30 minutes is inappropriate. Now, it may also be wrong to simply divide that expected word count in half to get the expected word count of an interpreted call. Maybe some of the interpretation is simultaneous or something. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s an unknown: while we can’t know exactly what word count to expect, we should be able to agree that comparing to the word count of an all-English call of similar duration is inappropriate.

  13. consciousness razor says

    Obviously it’s not verbatim, the memo even states that, but one thing that has been missing from the observations that the text is particularly short for a call of that length is that the memo is only recording the English of what was surely a two-language call, where Trump says something, it’s translated for Zelenskyy, Zelenskyy says something, that something is translated into English for Trump.

    Well, it’s a reasonable guess, but no. His wiki page says he speaks “fluent” English (and Ukrainian and Russian). Here’s some video of him from yesterday, speaking in English, next to his new “friend” Trump … along with lots of sounds that I suspect are either cameras or some very busy monkeys with typewriters. He seems fluent enough, and it’s fairly typical that he sometimes speaks a bit slowly, presumably to aim for correct pronunciation.
    One possibility to consider is that a large amount repetition or near-repetition may not have been included in their “adaptation” (as opposed to a verbatim “transcription”). Trump is notorious for doing that all of the time. In writing it down, they might have been tempted to cut some things like that out, since in speech, it’s (often, but not always) redundant or uninformative when something is repeated.
    And of course there are many other pauses, verbal ticks, grunts, coughs, ums and ahs and so forth…. A lot of that is probably tidied up, sometimes for good reason — for readability’s sake if nothing else, but also sometimes to make the speakers seem more coherent than they really are. But that stuff does take up a fairly substantial amount of time. Probably not 15 minutes worth in this case, but someone’s estimate (or recollection) of how long they thought it was might be way off as well.
    I’m used to transcribing (more often adapting/arranging) music, at times based only on recordings…. You wouldn’t believe how much needs to be “cleaned up” before it turns into something resembling standard notation, even when the interpretations in the recordings are extremely faithful to the original score (as close to it as you’ll ever find, that is). Anyway, the point (for me, when I’m doing it) is to give something usable to the people who want to use it, not to simply copy exactly what I heard, even if that is exactly what they asked for and what they think they wanted from me. That’s because doing that (as best I could) would just amount to creating a completely unusable mess — not an exaggeration. Plus, doing it to a ridiculously high level of detail would be very difficult if not impossible for me, and I really don’t need to make life any harder on myself. Besides, if they really wanted a literal copy of a recording, I would tell them to (1) stop bothering me, (2) buy a computer which can make such things and (3) stop performing music. Because that is how they can have their copy, but if that’s really what they want, they’ll need to do something else with their lives.
    So I just have to know better than to give them that. And indeed, no matter what I did, it’ll still be subject to all of the little “imperfections” that come with their attempt to interpret it and “reproduce” the very same thing with “accuracy.” It’s a strange game…. Much like global thermonuclear war and tic-tac-toe, the only winning move is not to play.

  14. blf says

    Also, diplomatic conversations are almost never recorded (either by technology or stenographers). The common protocol is to take hand-written notes. Whilst this practice started in the days when there was no other option, it is maintained now as a way of smoothing over misunderstandings — one can always claim the notes are incomplete or faulty or fail to capture the spirit of the conversation. Verbatim recordings or records / transcripts don’t allow this weasel-option, but as words have consequences, room to maneuver and save face (or not do an obvious U-turn) can be quite useful. The practice doesn’t avoid problems, of course, but it can allow things to cool down rather than blow up.

    An exception of sorts to this that I can now think of is the cold war “hot line” between Moscow and Washington. That was two teletypes, one English and one Russian (not a telephone, as commonly portrayed). Being a teletype, of course, meant there were paper records. (The hot line is now a secure computer link, but is still written, not verbal.) A possible flaw is the messages are sent in the originators language, and translated by the other side; this means a sloppy-drafted or improperly-translated message could be misinterpreted. Of course, such a risk would also exist if each side translated the messages before sending them, but such pre-transmission translation could help to ensure the message is perhaps less likely to be misunderstood. This is one reason, during verbal conversations, both sides tend to have translators (and hence can check each other), to help keep language / translation problems down.

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