Mar 31, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: New clue on Trump gap

A close-up image of then-President Donald Trump with a landline phone receiver to his left ear.
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 6, 2021, during an apparent seven-hour gap in White House call logs that the House select committee investigating the attack is now trying to piece together, then-President Trump's executive assistant, Molly Michael, was absent for most of the day, three sources with direct knowledge tell Axios.

Why it matters: Though sources said the Trump White House's already spotty record-keeping operation had virtually collapsed by the final weeks of his presidency, Michael's absence is a previously unreported detail that may play a role in explaining the incomplete records for a key stretch of time.

  • Her absence — coupled with the already shambolic state of record-keeping in the Outer Oval — also could complicate efforts to piece those details back together 14 months after that fateful day.

What we're hearing: Keeping handwritten notes on Trump's unscheduled meetings and calls was part of Michael's duties when she took over as executive assistant from her predecessor, Madeleine Westerhout.

  • While Trump was in the Oval Office, the dining room adjoining it or the White House residence, he preferred to use the landlines — though also used his personal cell or received calls on the cells of his close aides, according to sources who witnessed this.
  • He would frequently yell out, "Molly!," to get her to call whoever he wanted to talk to on a whim.

But Michael, who sat just outside the Oval Office, was out on the morning of Jan. 6 for personal reasons.

  • She arrived at the White House in the late afternoon that day, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the situation.
  • In her absence, the two staffers there during the critical hours of the Capitol siege were Nick Luna, the head of Oval Office Operations, who served as Trump's body man, and Austin Ferrer, a young staffer who assisted Michael in her administrative duties.
  • By the time Michael arrived, late that afternoon, the White House was a "sh-tshow" in the words of one official who was there. Michael, through an intermediary, declined to comment for this story.

Between the lines: Trump's constant attachment to his phone was legendary. But, as the Washington Post and CBS News first reported, White House call logs provided to the Jan. 6 committee show a gap of more than seven hours in presidential communications.

  • During the riot, Trump spent much of his time in the private dining room adjoining the Oval Office watching television, according to witnesses.
  • Aides were walking in and out as the staff scrambled to try to pressure the president to issue a statement condemning the Capitol rioters.
  • Trump had several known phone conversations that are not captured in the logs provided to the Jan. 6 committee, first published by the Washington Post. This included calls of intense interest to the committee, including with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

How it worked: Typically, each morning, the office of the Staff Secretary would leave in the Outer Oval a folder containing the president's briefing materials and also a printed private schedule of his planned day. But Trump would frenetically and repeatedly break his schedule.

  • In fact he had such frequent departures — with the Oval Office at times resembling a rush-hour train station — that even during the most functional periods of his presidency his executive assistants were routinely missing meetings and calls.
  • For at least a few years, Westerhout — and, later, Michael — did their best to capture the president's spontaneous meetings and calls as they popped up throughout the day, according to their colleagues who watched them do so.
  • They would jot down, in handwritten notes on top of the printed private schedule, who the president had spoken with that day in addition to his previously scheduled meetings.

The intrigue: Trump reserved some of his more sensitive calls for when he was in the White House residence.

For instance, one source with direct knowledge of his practices said Trump would not call Steve Bannon when he was in the Oval Office.

Instead, the source said, Trump's conversations with his controversial former chief strategist — captured in the call logs published by the Post — were from the residence.

At the end of each day, Trump's assistants in the Outer Oval would take the president's private schedule that day — along with their handwritten notes — to the Staff Secretary's office.

  • These notes were then sent for official records preservation — part of the White House staff's obligation under the Presidential Records Act of 1978.
  • The presidential records-keeping law is considered to be expansive, and include preserving emails, text messages and phone records regardless of the device used, presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky told the Associated Press.

But, but, but: The law largely depends on good faith from presidents and their staff.

No president has ever been punished for violating the Presidential Records Act.

  • "The implementation of that act is really important, because there is no real mechanism for enforcement," Martha Kumar, co-founder and director for the White House Transition Project, told Axios.
  • "It depends on the goodwill of the president; if the president wants to avoid record-keeping, then there's a way of doing it."

Trump tested that good faith more than any president in recent memory.

He frequently tore up documents, leaving career staff to stick them back together to meet record-keeping laws.

Papers were even found clogging the toilets in the White House residence, as the New York Times' Maggie Haberman first reported.

  • In early 2020, when COVID-19 hit the United States and the wheels started falling off of Trump's re-election bid, his White House was consumed even more than usual by chaos.
  • The already casual record-keeping fell away.

Sources with direct knowledge of the situation told Axios Michael began taking fewer and fewer records of the president's off-schedule meetings and calls.

  • Staff began questioning the value of doing this type of record-keeping at all.
  • Two former officials said Outer Oval staff were poorly served by their superiors and never properly briefed on crucial obligations of their jobs.
  • At least once, during the first year of Trump's presidency, the White House Counsel's Office issued a stern warning about their obligation to preserve a wide and detailed account of the president's movements, actions and communications, according to a source with direct knowledge.

The bottom line: One of the biggest challenges to the legal requirements was the President’s habitual use of his own or aides' cell phones to place and receive calls.

  • Thus far, such calls on Jan 6 have remained outside public record keeping.
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