The Case of the Edited Transcript

An omission in the official transcript comes at a time of tensions over access and coverage between the White House and the press corps.
Photograph by MJ Kim/Getty Images

People around President Barack Obama have heard the joke before: When he and his family left Chicago for Washington, the move happened so fast that he left some unpaid bills on his desk.  But apparently a White House stenographer has never heard it. 

Obama repeated the joke Monday afternoon, while speaking to Democratic donors in Chicago.  Reporters in the public part of the meeting heard the reference, but when an official transcript came out, the joke was missing.  Reporters noticed. A new controversy was born.

Perhaps not. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the unpaid bills line was "inaudible" to the stenographer and that should have been reflected in the transcript – and would be in a corrected transcript to be issued. (The corrected transcript, issued in the late morning, does include the term "inaudible" at the point in question.)

The error comes two weeks before midterm elections and at a time, more broadly, of tensions over coverage and access between the White House and the press corps that covers the president. (Disclosure: I'm a board member of the White House Correspondents' Association and involved in these discussions.) 

Here's the passage from the White House transcript:

When we think back to when I first took office, one of the nice things about being home is actually that it's a little bit like a time capsule because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some -- newspapers and all kinds of stuff.  We always thought we’d be back every month and we’d kind of get everything in order and filed, and it hasn’t happened.  But it's useful, actually, to take a look at some of these old articles to remind ourselves of where we were when we took office and to think about the progress we've made over the last six years.

Here's what Obama actually said, with the missing words italicized. It comes from Politico's Jennifer Epstein, the print pool reporter in the room, who flagged the White House press corps to the discrepancy, which she said was first noticed by the AP's Josh Lederman:

" . . . because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some unpaid bills -- (laughter) I think eventually they got paid -- but they're sort of stacked up. And messages, newspapers and all kinds of stuff."

No official word yet from the White House on whether Obama is, in fact, up to date on his bills.

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