How Trump’s Missing Call Logs Could Become His Nixon Tapes

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Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

During the nearly nine hours that Congress was under attack on Jan. 6, 2021, the official White House call logs show former President Donald Trump not placing a single phone call. And while historians may consider the missing call logs a crime of inaccurately memorializing history, it may also actually bolster the expected criminal case against Trump.

“The first thing one thinks of is the Nixon tapes, the missing 18 minutes. It’s never been resolved,” said American University professor Chris Edelson, who studies the power of the presidency.

Edelson was referring to the Watergate scandal that took down President Richard Nixon, who taped White House discussions of the burglary coverup but conveniently erased 18-and-a-half minutes of those damning talks—much to the chagrin of federal investigators.

Trump—who was already impeached a second time over his incitement of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and now faces a highly secret Justice Department investigation—is now in the same boat.

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“It’s exactly like that… all you’re left to surmise is that, for nefarious reasons, this particular president didn’t want any record kept,” said Barbara Ann Perry, presidential studies professor at the University of Virginia.

The gap starts at 11:04 a.m. that day, when an incoming call was logged from then-Senator David Perdue (R-GA) with the attached note, “Talked Ok.” The next item appears nearly eight hours later at 6:54 p.m., when Trump asked the switchboard operator to ring his social media director. “POTUS instructed operator to call back with Mr. Dan Scavino,” it reads.

From that point onward, the staff-written Trump presidential daily diary and switchboard call logs both record what happened next. Some 22 minutes later, the switchboard operator told Trump he had pending calls from all the president’s men and women—who had assisted his coup plot in various ways. The list included Kurt Olsen, an attorney who tried to use the nation’s courts to overturn election results, Mark Martin, a former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice who advised him on those frivolous lawsuits, and Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who joined Trump on his menacing call to Georgia’s top elections official in a failed attempt to have him falsify vote tallies.

Also in line were Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO). According to the diary, Trump took the calls from the lawyers but rejected the ones from the senators.

The call logs and diary show that Trump spoke with Olson for 11 minutes starting at 7:17 p.m., then Martin for nine minutes, then Olson again for another 10 minutes, then Mitchell for two minutes.

But similar to Nixon, there’s ample evidence that former President Donald Trump did indeed have damning conversations that aren’t reflected in the official record. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) have all admitted to having phone conversations with the former president during the harrowing hours while the attack unfolded in the afternoon, yet the White House switchboard typically used for official calls doesn’t reflect any of those calls. It’s unclear what phone he used to make these calls, but Trump was known to sometimes use the mobile devices of his aides or even his own cell at times.

“Yes, this is missing evidence of wrongdoing on the president’s part,” Perry told The Daily Beast. “This would be part of that story. Why would he be hiding this?”

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The records, which were turned over to the House Jan. 6 Committee investigating the insurrection by the National Archives under President Joe Biden’s current administration, were released on Monday on the eve of the 117th Congress.

“We may never find out. It’s certainly strange to say the least. We knew that Trump was speaking to people in this time period,” Edelson said.

Long before the insurrection, Trump had a troubled history with official presidential recordkeeping—a particularly ironic point given that he ascended to the White House by berating Hillary Clinton over her dubious use of a private email server while in public office. Trump aides famously had to tape back together documents he’d torn up, and administration officials resorted to using encrypted device apps to text each other disappearing messages.

But over the years, Trump also developed a distaste for the official White House switchboard, drama that stemmed from his own staff’s attempt to rein him in. Gen. John F. Kelly, the Marine who served as Trump’s chief of staff during most of the first half of his presidency, would secretly monitor his boss’s calls, according to a book published last year by Trump White House adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

When Trump was later informed that Kelly had done that for months, he was stunned.

Kushner recalled Trump saying, “Kelly did what?” and ordering staffers to “end that immediately.” At that moment, Kelly’s incoming replacement, Mick Mulvaney, had Trump sign a document “that would end the practice Kelly started of listening to all of your phone calls.”

Mulvaney’s replacement, Mark Meadows, later severely restricted which White House officials could access those call logs, according to CNN. Still, by then Trump had already grown accustomed to dodging the official White House switchboard by cutting landline calls short and instructing contacts to ring him directly on his cellphone instead, CNN reported.

Meadows was still in that position as Trump’s right hand man in late 2020, when he played a pivotal role in trying to keep his boss in power despite losing the general election. Meadows, who helped start the House Freedom Caucus while a congressman, tapped former colleagues in that group of far-right Republicans to assist in a ploy to stop Congress from certifying the nation’s electoral college results. Much of what we now know about the scheme came from emails and text messages he handed over to the House Jan. 6 Committee, which this week released documents it had accumulated during its probe—including White House calls logs.

The missing information was frustrating to congressional investigators, and the Representatives on the nine-member panel often complained about the Trump administration’s lack of transparency when recording the events of that day.

But the eight-hour phone log gap might prove to be just a speed bump for the Department of Justice, which is currently reviewing Trump’s election reversal efforts as part of a larger probe into various criminal actions by the former president. That’s because FBI special agents can instead use subpoenas to quietly collect the phone toll records of McCarthy, Jordan, Tuberville, and anyone else who spoke to Trump during those hours to find which phones at the White House made those calls.

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“Billing records don’t ever really go away. Could it be used against him? Sure. It could be seen as evidence of state of mind. It’s relatively weak evidence, but it does suggest something—that you’re staying off of certain comms,” noted Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of the national security legal blog Lawfare.

Should the DOJ make the historic but anticipated decision to indict the former president, a key challenge will be proving that Trump knew what he was doing was wrong. Political scientists who spoke to The Daily Beast wondered aloud if the the call log would prove to be as damning to Trump as the erased tapes were to Nixon—particularly if federal prosecutors determined that Trump’s criminal intent was evidenced by him taking steps to deliberately avoid making an official government record of damning phone calls to key lawmakers who supported his insurrection.

But there’s another dimension to Trump’s missing White House calls: the way this frustrates historians who are tasked with giving future Americans a clear picture of how this president attempted to harm the nation’s democracy.

“The White House switchboard is highly regarded in historical literature,” said Bowdoin College presidential scholar Andrew Rudalevige, who emphasized how important these kinds of records are.

“I have very little doubt he was discussing things that were at best unsavory at that time,” he said.

But political scientists stressed that the missing records mean more than potential criminal evidence—they serve as a stark reminder of how low the Trump administration sank before its shameful exit.

“One thing we tend to lose track of with Trump is just how bizarre, unusual, unprecedented and unpresidential his term was. ‘Normalization’ was a real thing. People have come to accept these things that in any other presidency people would consider out of bounds, delinquent,” Edelson said. “This is just so mind-blowing.”

Perry, the University of Virginia professor, noted that the incoming Congress now finds itself in the same position as the one that followed Nixon’s resignation. In 1978, four years after Nixon left the White House, lawmakers passed the Presidential Records Act to prevent future presidents from withholding or destroying records that document their time in office. But that law has proven to be too weak a deterrent, archivists and historians say. Democrats reeling from Trump’s lawlessness would support tougher accountability measures. And Republicans who keep lodging accusations against the Biden administration—and now form a majority in the House of Representatives—would be wise to join them.

“I would hope that under normal circumstances, Congress would act and say, if nothing else, presidents have to keep the records of their phone calls. Right now I don’t think there’s such a law,” she said.

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