The transcript of the July 25 phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky raises a curtain on the generally secretive world of discussions carried out between American and global leaders.
Presidents and prime ministers frequently hold camera-friendly discussions about the “close,” “great” or “special” relationship between their countries, before slinking behind closed doors for meetings that are top-secret, the contents only revealed years later.
The phone conversations of US presidents take things one step further: The White House no longer systematically publishes a list of American leaders’ calls, meaning the occurrence itself could be a closely guarded secret.
Only a year ago, Bill Clinton’s library published declassified transcripts of telephone calls and bilateral meetings between the former president and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin dating between 1993 and 1999.
The White House said the document that it released Wednesday was a summary — not a verbatim transcript — fleshed out with notes taken by presidential advisors who are in charge of listening to the conversations from the Situation Room, the ultra-secure meeting room located in the basement of the White House.
“It is a long-standing practice, intended to not only memorialize the call but to protect the President against… egregious claims about the call,” Larry Pfeiffer, former senior director of the White House Situation Room under Barack Obama, explained on Twitter.
Recording the phone conversations of US presidents has not been a practice for a number of years, said Pfeiffer, who also served as a former CIA director’s chief of staff.
He emphasised that advisors’ notes are not exhaustive and, depending on topic and a conversation’s participants, range from exact transcripts to vague summaries.
‘Do us a favour’
The Trump-Zelensky exchange showed the two leaders, who had not yet met in person at the time of the call, attempting to establish a personal rapport.
Trump, 73, opened the conversation by telling his 41-year-old counterpart: “Congratulations on a great victory. We all watched from the United States and you did a terrific job.”
Despite Zelensky light-heartedly ribbing the US president to call him more often, the exchange reflects the asymmetrical relationship between the US billionaire and Ukrainian leader.
Zelensky oscillated between obsequious, agreeing with Trump “1 000%” and fawning, telling the US president that the last time he was in New York he stayed at Trump Tower.
The exchange’s publication provoked strong reaction in Ukraine, where some described their president’s behavior as a point of shame.
The White House said that the call lasted 30 minutes, and that note takers were at work in the Situation Room.
But then things took a turn for the newsworthy. When Zelensky told Trump Ukraine was “almost ready” to buy more anti-tank Javelin missiles from the United States, the US president replied: “I would like you to do us a favour.”
Trump went on to say US Attorney General Bill Barr and the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani would be in touch about probing the Ukraine-related activities of his Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
And now, an impeachment storm rages.
© Agence France-Presse