Hayden Center Director on Ukraine Call Transcript

October 1, 2019


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With Washington abuzz over the ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Trump, much of the early attention with regard to the scandal was on the “transcript” the White House released of the president’s phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. The document in question—a “memorandum of conversation” rather than a verbatim transcript—raised questions about whether President Trump abused the power of his office to damage former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in the 2020 presidential election. As the situation unfolded earlier this fall, Hayden Center Director Larry Pfeiffer was able to provide unique insights into the phone call.

From 2011 to 2013, Mr. Pfeiffer was senior director of the White House Situation Room. In this capacity, he was in charge of ensuring there was a record of presidential phone calls with foreign leaders. As he explained to the Washington Post,

During the two years he led the Situation Room, organizing calls with foreign leaders behind the scenes was one of his main responsibilities… [Pfeiffer] was the guy who sat at the end of the couch in the Oval Office, ready to provide any technical support should something go wrong. He would wait for Obama to signal he was ready to hop on the call, and in turn, Pfeiffer said, he would notify the folks in the Situation Room: the transcribers. Depending on the call, Pfeiffer said he typically assigned two or three of them.“These guys and gals would be seriously hammering away at the keyboard, trying to capture the call as best as they could… At the end of the call, those two or three people would get together and compare their transcripts and come up with a unified transcript.”

In a Twitter thread just prior to the release of the White House version of the conversation, Pfeiffer explained the procedures for keeping records of presidential phone calls and what they might tell us about the call:

As senior director of the WH Situation Room, I managed POTUS head-of-state calls. So, what light can I shed on the Trump-promised phone transcript? /1

— Larry Pfeiffer (@LarryPfeifferDC) September 24, 2019

Subsequent to the thread going viral among national security practitioners and journalists on Twitter—and the release of the White House version of the call—Mr. Pfeiffer has discussed with a number of media outlets what the transcript means in light of the intelligence community whistleblower report that followed soon after. These outlets include the Washington Post, the New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Bostotn GlobeVice NewsUSA Today, and Politico. Mr. Pfeiffer has also made numerous appearances on television and radio over the past two weeks as well. These include multiple appearances on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and Up with David Gura on MSNBC, Right Now with Brianna Keilar and New Day with John Berman and Alisyn Camerota on CNN, PBS NewsHour with Judy Woodruff, NPR’s Morning Edition.

For further insights into this story, you can follow Mr. Pfeiffer on Twitter at @LarryPfeifferDC. You can follow the Hayden Center at @mvhaydencenter.