• Sat. Dec 3rd, 2022

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I investigated Watergate. Here’s why Trump’s phone log gap is beyond suspicious.

My phone rang off the hook as soon as the news hit. According to reporting from The Washington Post, internal White House phone records turned over to the House Jan. 6 committee included a gap of seven hours and 37 minutes. A lot can be said in 457 minutes.

Comparisons to the 18.5-minute gap in a crucial President Richard Nixon recording were immediately obvious to me. After all, I was the prosecutor who cross-examined Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, about how that gap came to be. And I am not the only one to make that connection.

I was the prosecutor who cross-examined Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, about how that gap came to be. And I am not the only one to make that connection.

Those similarities — and the differences — are illuminating as lawmakers continue to battle apparent obstruction in their investigation of the events leading up to and during the Capitol riot.

First, Nixon’s gap seems — based on my experience and other experts — to have been a deliberate erasure. Is Trump’s? We don’t have enough evidence to say for sure yet, but the missing chunk certainly appears deliberate.

Almost 50 years ago, Woods testified that it was partly an accident caused by her mistakenly hitting the record button rather than the stop button on the recording machine, coupled with keeping her foot on the pedal that stopped and started playback. Her theory strained credulity. Several experts concluded it was not an accidental single erasure, but seven or more separate erasures. (In my opinion, I don’t think any of these erasures were created by Woods. I suspect Nixon himself, possibly aided by his first chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, or Gen. Al Haig, his second chief of staff, who initially said the gap was caused by a “sinister force.”)

March 30, 202207:53

Trump’s gap is also suspicious. For one thing, the Post reported the phone log shows the president was busy making calls before and after the gap, making a seven-hour-plus break in calls unlikely. More compelling, the gap covers the key period of the insurrection. And we know from other reporting that Trump made and received calls during that time, at least one of which was to Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah (although Trump apparently was trying to call Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama). It is unlikely, even incredible, that no one called in to the president for 457 minutes during a crisis when he was in the White House. Even calls that go unanswered in the White House should be listed on official logs.

If the Trump phone log gap is deliberate, it would necessitate a series of urgent follow-up questions. For example, it would be important to know if Trump or someone on his team edited the records before giving them to the National Archives as required by the Presidential Records Act. (Ironically, of course, that act was passed as a result of Nixon’s mishandling of presidential documents.) Alternatively, Trump could have deliberately prevented the creation of official White House phone logs by switching to cheap burner phones, his personal cellphone or the phone of any nearby aide, and if he did that, we should know.

Luckily, alternative sources often exist, outside of the official records, that can fill in gaps — inadvertent or malicious.

March 30, 202205:11

Handwritten notes from Nixon’s Oval Office conversation with Haldeman — taken by Haldeman — showed that pause started precisely when their conversation turned to the Watergate break-in and ended when they pivoted to other matters. Haldeman’s notes spelled out the content of the missing minutes.

Testimony and phone records will hopefully show whose calls are potentially missing from Trump’s official White House phone log. Even a cursory investigation should yield answers as to whom, in addition to Lee and Tuberville, Trump spoke during this seven-hour-plus gap.

Ultimately, however, while the similarities between the two examples are important, so, too, are the differences.

Ultimately, however, while the similarities between the two examples are important, so, too, are the differences.

Nixon’s gap was a single conversation about covering up a third-rate burglary. This we know because of Haldeman’s notes, which detail their conversation about a PR offensive to counter the Watergate break-in and a plan to sweep for bugs in the White House offices. (The latter point is highly ironic given Nixon’s propensity for bugging everyone and everything around him.)

Trump’s potentially hours of missing conversations likely regarded the ongoing insurrection and various alleged plans to overturn a free and fair election. We don’t know what he may have discussed, but we do know that in the days leading up to Jan. 6, Trump was openly trying to find any way possible to stall or undo America’s fraud-free election results. Through surrogates and lawyers, Team Trump was working around the clock to undermine the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s November 2020 victory and encourage millions of die-hard Trump supporters to do the same. 

It is often said that Nixon’s cover-up was worse than his underlying crime. The reverse is potentially true for Trump. Trump’s records gap is 25 times as long as Nixon’s, but his alleged crime could be incalculably worse.