This story was originally published in the November 22 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Sign up here to receive it every weekday morning.
It’s the revenge of the note takers.
The experts and diplomats whose testimony helped build the impeachment case against Donald Trump know exactly what happened. That’s because they wrote it down.
In Washington, smart officials take notes to preserve momentous events for history, to ease decision-making, to flesh out inside-the-room memoirs — and most importantly, as legal protection. The nation’s capital can sometimes feel like the world’s largest white collar law firm, with legal pads flying open for even the most mundane meetings.
This epidemic of diligence exemplifies the cultural clashes between the permanent Washington bureaucracy and the US President’s anti-establishment outsiders. “I am not a note taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been,” testified star impeachment witness and Trump appointee Gordon Sondland on Thursday. (Of course, the lack of a record did give him convenient deniability of key moments.)
Contrast with career diplomat Bill Taylor, the top US envoy in Kiev, who embroidered an intricate picture of Trump’s back-door foreign policy because he recorded it in real time. “I’ve always kept careful notes, and I keep a little notebook where I take notes on conversations, in particular when I’m not in the office,” said Taylor, who also keeps a spiral notebook next to his phone to document conversations.
A good note caused one of the most notorious episodes of this presidency, back when impeachment was still only a glimmer in Democrats’ eyes: Trump’s courting of James Comey. After meetings with Trump made him uncomfortable, the former FBI director went to his armored SUV and tapped out memos on his laptop there to protect himself and his organization.
After Comey was fired and the memos leaked, eye-popping descriptions of Trump’s behavior led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Without memos of his own, Trump could only blast Comey’s record as “Fake.”
NB. The most celebrated Washington note taker may have been former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who kept color coded hourly logs to track where he went, who he saw, what he ate and what he wore. The granular detail itself looks well — kind of weird. But on one occasion, the notebooks came in politically handy: Graham used them to turn back time and dispute CIA claims on the frequency with which Democrats had been briefed on interrogation policy.