OP-ED: After 45 years, another 18-minute gap

John M. Crisp
Tribune News Service

The “transcript” of the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call of July 25 raises an interesting question: Where’s the rest of it?

In addition to the date and location of the call, the document’s heading notes the time: “9:03 – 9:33 a.m. EDT.” Thirty minutes. But if you read the “transcript” aloud at a normal conversational pace, it takes about 12 minutes.

Eighteen missing minutes? Citizens of a certain age are likely to be reminded of the suspicious 18-minute gap that cropped up in one of the Watergate tapes of a conversation between President Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. Those missing minutes raised concerns that the tape had been scrubbed of damaging evidence. The shades of Watergate persist in interesting ways.

In the case of the Trump-Zelenskiy “transcript,” part of the explanation for the missing information may lie in the fact that the document isn’t a transcript, at all, but a “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation” produced by staff assigned to “listen and memorialize the conversation” as it is taking place. In other words, while the document is popularly called a transcript, it’s actually a summary. But I’m not sure this explanation sufficiently accounts for the apparent discrepancy between the length of the call and the amount we know about what was actually said. Summaries, by definition, leave things out.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., reads a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The only other explanation I’ve heard suggested for the 18-minute gap is that much of the time may have been taken up by translators. This sounds semi-feasible until we realize that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks English, as he demonstrated during his meeting with Trump at the U.N. last week.

Unlike Watergate’s 18-minute gap, however, the information in the current one evidently still exists in the form of a genuine full transcript that has been hidden away in a highly secure location. Americans interested in a full accounting should insist on the release of that document, as well as records of other calls — with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, for example — that have been concealed.

In any case, the 12-minute conversation that we already have is a remarkably revealing record of the phone call. English? Ukrainian? It doesn’t matter. What’s clear is that Trump and Zelenskiy speak the same language — let’s call it the language of This-for-That — and both of them understood each other very, very well.

The grammar of the language of This-for-That is based on understatement and an economy of words. The less said, the better, as long as the meaning is clear. It often relies on a mismatch in power between the conversants, and its only reason for existing is to facilitate an exchange of value. You do not have to be fluent in English to understand This-for-That; in fact, it’s probably Donald Trump’s first language.

Does the Trump-Zelenskiy conversation contain a quid pro quo? Of course it does, as anyone who understands This-for-That quickly recognizes. Trump merely used the smallest hammer necessary for the job, but he and Zelenskiy both understand clearly — and this is the genius of This-for-That — that a $391 million hammer waits in the background, whether anyone mentions it or not. Ukrainian independence, as well as the lives of Ukrainians, depends on that money.

There’s nothing mysterious about this. Any fair observer can understand the language of This-for-That (in Latin, that’s quid pro quo) just as clearly as Trump and Zelenskiy do. But there’s such a thing as willful illiteracy, which means allowing prejudices to overwhelm what the reader actually sees in the text. Thus Republicans read, but dismissed, extremely clear evidence of Trump’s attempts at obstruction of justice in the Mueller report. And thus some Republicans can read clear evidence of a deal being made and pretend that nothing consequential is taking place.

We’ve seen only a 12-minute summary of the half-hour duration of the Trump-Zelenskiy conversation. The other 18 minutes might better serve the purposes of a full investigation. But even the summary speaks eloquently. In the interest of concision, here’s a summary of the summary: The Trump-Zelenskiy call was deeply corrupt, unpatriotic, criminal and impeachable.

— John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at