Ex-White House Stenographer: With No Official Transcript, Trump Can Muddle The Truth

Jul 23, 2018
Originally published on July 23, 2018 10:47 am

For five years, Beck Dorey-Stein was Barack Obama's "professional stalker," she says. "His creeper."

As a former White House stenographer — a job she found on Craigslist of all places — Dorey-Stein was part of a team responsible for going anywhere the president went, recording his every public utterance and then transcribing it for posterity.

"Especially whenever he spoke with press, he made sure, just like the previous presidents did, that there was a stenographer in the room so that there was no miscommunication or confusion about what exactly was said," says Dorey-Stein. She writes about the experience in her new memoir, From the Corner of the Oval.

In an interview with Noel King for NPR's Morning Edition, Dorey-Stein says "everything changed" with the inauguration of President Trump, whose team "didn't know that stenographers existed." She recounts how during the transition, it took her boss multiple tries before she was even able to get past a young press wrangler to introduce herself to the incoming West Wing staff.

Things didn't improve much from there. In a New York Times op-ed published last week, Dorey-Stein writes about how Stephanie Grisham, now the communications director for the first lady, told a colleague that White House stenographers would not be needed often, because "there would be video."

"This seems like a fair point," says Dorey-Stein, "unless you really know audio." The audio that's taken from media video might change or get trimmed during the editing process, she says. "We see that with music videos, so the idea of it just being like, 'Oh, of course, we can just have this on video,' it's not the same."

"We type up our transcripts from our audio, so it hasn't been tampered with and it not only goes to the press office, the press, but also the presidential archive," she says. "That's really important to have an accurate recording at all times, especially when the press is involved, just to make sure that we are recording the truth and that no one has complicated that."

The importance of that type of record has been underscored in recent days by a string of controversies involving comments made by Trump. On his visit earlier this month to the United Kingdom, for example, the president denied making disparaging comments about British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview with the tabloid The Sun, even though the The Sun released a recording of the remarks.

Then, last Wednesday, the White House was forced to clarify an exchange between the president and a reporter at the start of a Cabinet meeting. Asked whether he believes Russia is no longer targeting U.S. elections, the president shook his head and said "no." Later, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that his "no" meant that the president was not taking questions from reporters.

Dorey-Stein says that under Trump, White House stenographers have less access to the president.

In her recent op-ed, she writes about how she watched "with disbelief" as Bill O'Reilly was summoned to the Oval Office for a private conversation with the president ahead of an interview by the former Fox News host in the opening weeks of the administration.

"In my five years with President Barack Obama, off-the-record discussions with reporters happened after work hours — not for an hour in the middle of the workday, and certainly not before an interview," she writes in the op-ed. "When a president spoke on the record with a reporter, his staff made sure to have a stenographer present so there could be an official White House transcript, just in case the reporter came out with an inaccurate quotation."

In her conversation with NPR, Dorey-Stein says that Trump "doesn't like microphones near his face, which makes it very difficult to record him."

"He's doing the American people a disservice," she says. "It's quite possible President Trump is actually doing it intentionally, because if there was a record of what happened, it would be hard for him to muddle the truth."

The president has had the latitude "to walk his words back," she says, "because he doesn't have a recording ... It's much easier to muddle the truth when you don't have a transcript."

This story was produced for broadcast by Tori Whitley and edited by Ashley Westerman.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

As White House stenographer, it was Beck Dorey-Stein's job to write down every word of every interaction the president had with the press. She did the job for five years starting under President Obama. And then President Trump was elected. Dorey-Stein says she knew, from the day he was inaugurated, things would be different.

BECK DOREY-STEIN: Trump's inaugural speech had this language that I had never heard before that was so divisive in a way that was terrifying. And so all of my friends actually got to go to the tarmac to say goodbye to President Obama. And I had to stay and type that transcript. And I just remember being like, I'm not going to be able to do this very long. This is so horrifying.

KING: Beck Dorey-Stein recently wrote about Trump's relationship with stenographers in an op-ed for The New York Times. She told me stenographers used to go everywhere with Obama. But when Trump came into office, everything changed.

DOREY-STEIN: Even during the transition, there was a lot of chaos. Actually, my boss had to keep going down to the press office and trying to introduce herself. And she couldn't get past, like, this 22-year-old press wrangler who was like, well, I'll have to check back. I'll have to check back. So even for the first interview Trump did as president, there wasn't a stenographer present for that.

KING: And you were told, at one point, that President Trump does not like being recorded. Is that right?

DOREY-STEIN: He doesn't like microphones near his face, which makes it very difficult to record him, especially on Air Force One where the plane is loud enough that you really have to have a microphone right up in their face.

KING: Dorey-Stein wrote in her op-ed that the Trump transition team told one of her colleagues they wouldn't need a stenographer because, a lot of times, there will just be video. But she says it's not enough.

DOREY-STEIN: So the reason why video is not the same as a stenographer's audio is because, especially if it's media video, they can splice that video. They can change any quote into any quote that they want. And also, I would stay, and I would keep my recorders running just in case a reporter on his way out the door was like, Mr. President, one more thing. We wanted to make sure we had every interaction everywhere that was said. Even if the president didn't answer the question, we made sure to include the question in the transcript just to make sure we had an accurate depiction of what happened.

KING: Are stenographers allowed to be present during private meetings with the president and other officials? And I'm thinking, of course, of this meeting between President Trump and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, where one of the big concerns was it was just these two men and their interpreters. No one else was there. As a stenographer, would you have been allowed into that meeting?

DOREY-STEIN: We're there to protect the president. So if they wanted us, we would have certainly been there. Sometimes though, of course, heads of state are allowed to talk without stenographers present.

KING: President Trump has a very, very tense relationship with much of the press. He accuses them openly of making things up about him. Do you think he's doing himself a disservice by not using stenographers to basically back him up if he says, you know, CNN is lying? Well, get the stenographer's transcript, and we'll show you. CNN is not telling the truth.

DOREY-STEIN: He's doing the American people a disservice. It's quite possible President Trump is actually doing it intentionally because if there was a record of what happened, it would be hard for him to muddle the truth as he has been - you know, he's having to walk his words back. And he's able to do that. He has that latitude because he doesn't have a recording. If a stenographer were in the room, all he would have to do is say check the transcript. And it's much easier to muddle the truth when you don't have a transcript.

KING: Beck Dorey-Stein is a former White House stenographer and author of the new memoir "From The Corner Of The Oval." Beck, thanks for coming on.

DOREY-STEIN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "REACTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.