Pushing back against allegations of attempting to alter the historical record, the White House said Wednesday that the omission of a key question from its transcript of President Donald Trump’s news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin “was by no means malicious.”
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow leveled the charge Tuesday night, accusing the White House of deliberately leaving out the question.
Two reporters each from the U.S. and Russian press corps asked questions of Trump and Putin following their July 16 summit in Helsinki. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders first called on Jeff Mason, a White House correspondent for the Reuters news agency.
After posing his questions to Trump, Mason then asked Putin: “Did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?” The question is central to the federal investigation — Trump calls it a “witch hunt” — into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But the White House transcript, and its video of the news conference, left out the first part of Mason’s two-part question.
Maddow made the omission the lead of her prime-time broadcast Tuesday night. She compared the White House transcript and video to those produced by others which included Mason’s question. Maddow noted that the English version of the Russian government transcript didn’t even mention Mason.
“A critical exchange deleted from the transcript. A reporter’s question edited out of the videotape,” she said. “The U.S. government essentially following the Kremlin’s playbook and maintaining that something we all saw with our own eyes, we all heard happen with our own ears, has nevertheless disappeared like old political opponents being airbrushed out of photos.”
“It’s weird, right? It’s creepy. Turns out it wasn’t a mistake. Turns out it was on purpose,” Maddow claimed.
The White House denied that the omission was deliberate.
“The White House stenographer uses the audio from the White House audio to produce the transcript,” the White House press office said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “The audio mixer at the site did not bring up the question (microphone) level in time to catch the beginning of Jeff’s question because the translator was still speaking. This was by no means malicious.”
The White House said the transcript has been updated for presidential records.
The statement did not address the identical omission that is noticeable on White House video of the news conference, or whether the transcript available on its website would also be updated. As of Wednesday, the transcript did not include Mason’s first question to Putin.
The Atlantic and The Washington Post are among news organizations that cast doubt on Maddow’s determination that the omission was purposeful, citing the muddled audio.
Maddow defended herself Wednesday in a series of tweets, saying the Post report offered “one possible explanation” for why the White House transcript and video did not include Putin saying he wanted Trump to win in response to Mason’s first question.
Maddow also noted that the White House transcript and video hadn’t been updated, more than a week after the news conference.
“I love WaPo with the heat of 1000 suns, but nothing here from WaPo disproves our report,” she tweeted.
Trump has not hidden his disdain for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, regularly referring to it in public comments and on Twitter as a “witch hunt.” U.S. intelligence agencies all concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to try to help Trump win, a fact that Trump has wavered on fully accepting. Putin has said the Russian state did not interfere, and Trump appeared at the news conference to accept Putin’s fresh denials.
Putin answered Mason’s question by saying, “Yes, I did” want Trump to win “because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
Journalism ethicists questioned why the White House still hadn’t updated its transcript.
“I find it very worrisome that a week after the Helsinki press conference that the White House would not have corrected the record by now,” Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, said in an interview. “More transparency is what we need, not less.”