The Clinton Precedent: White House Must Release Trump’s Call With Zelensky
Now that Donald Trump has admitted that he urged Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens in a July 25 telephone conversation, members of Congress are demanding that the White House release a transcript of that call. Although Trump himself suggested that he might release the transcript, leading administration figures pushed back hard on Sunday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the transcript shouldn’t be released because “those are private conversations between world leaders and it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so except in the most extreme circumstances. There’s no evidence that that would be appropriate here at this point.”
Appearing on Meet The Press, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin went even further. “I think it would be highly inappropriate to release a transcript of a call between two world leaders…I think that those are confidential discussions, and that’s a difficult precedent.”
But there was a parallel situation that caused no difficulty for Republicans in the White House and Congress: the release in 2001 of three conversations between former President Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak, then the prime minister of Israel. The salient topic discussed by the two heads of state in those chats was a proposed pardon for oilman and financier Marc Rich, a fugitive from the US Justice Department then living in Switzerland.
Clinton’s decision to pardon Rich on January 20, 2001, during the final hours of his presidency, provoked a national furor and led to investigations by the House Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) and the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mary Jo White. Despite loud and insistent accusations by his critics, neither probe found evidence of bribery or any other wrongdoing by Clinton.
The Bush White House released those transcripts to Burton without delay, evidently not worrying much about any precedent that might be established concerning the confidentiality of communications with foreign heads of state. One key reason the release could proceed so rapidly was that Clinton himself chose not to contest the matter. He readily disclosed the contents of those conversations to both investigations. According to his personal attorney David Kendall, “We didn’t oppose the release of the transcripts of the Barak-Clinton conversations. We knew they confirmed our account.”
To reveal the contents of a telephone conversation between the president of the United States and a foreign head of state is undoubtedly a matter of utmost sensitivity. It is not a gesture to be undertaken lightly — and yet, as with the Rich case, the suspicions surrounding Trump’s possible abuse of his office to smear Joe Biden certainly require transparency. Where Clinton was subject to criminal and Congressional investigations, Trump could soon become the target of impeachment.
The difference is that Clinton didn’t oppose disclosure, even though he was then under investigation by an angry federal prosecutor and a hostile Congressional committee. In fact, the former president waived any and all claims of executive privilege with respect to the pardon investigations, including testimony by his former aides and all relevant White House communications.
So far Trump is not only withholding the July 25 transcript, but his legal counsel and Justice Department are unlawfully hiding the intelligence whistleblower’s complaint from Congress.
I discussed the circumstances of the release of the Clinton-Barak conversations — and the context of the Rich pardon bid — in Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton (St. Martin’s Press, 2016):
While the House committee probe went on for months, the evidence that emerged substantiated none of the suspicions voiced by the chairman—and in fact came close to proving the opposite. Ultimately, what Burton’s machinations revealed was not a corruption conspiracy, but the unfolding diplomatic and political relationship that had impelled Clinton to issue the risky pardon.
When Clinton waived executive privilege to allow the testimony of Podesta, Bruce Lindsey, and Nolan, he simultaneously opened his ad- ministration’s archives—under the control of Bush White House lawyers—to the Burton committee investigators. Among the many Israeli officials and former officials who had contacted the White House on behalf of Marc Rich, as the press had already noted, was Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister. Barak had reportedly discussed Rich with Clinton on at least two and perhaps three occasions. Armed with that scant knowledge, the Burton staffers made an unprecedented demand: They wanted the transcripts of notes recording the conversations between the two heads of state that had been taken down by [White House] stenographers.
While all such discussions between the president and other heads of state are recorded in that manner, virtually no documents in the White House would be considered more sensitive—especially involving the prime minister of Israel, and even more especially during a period of critical negotiations between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority. Transcripts of private conversations between the president and foreign heads of state are not routinely provided to congressional committees or anyone else, particularly not when the conversations had occurred only months earlier.
It was difficult to imagine a more blatant breach of the discretion expected by world leaders when they are on the telephone with the president of the United States.
Yet the Bush White House bowed to the committee’s request swiftly and even eagerly. Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, ensured that the written notes of three Clinton-Barak conversations concerning Rich—which had occurred on December 11, 2000; January 8, 2001; and January 19, 2001—were declassified, redacted, and released to Burton “at warp speed,” as one lawyer put it. (As a shining example of transparent government, this contrasted sharply with the obsessive secrecy that shrouded the following eight years of the Bush presidency.)