Trump’s Phone Calls Alarm US Officials
By Staff, CNN
In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state, US President Donald Trump was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and so abusive to leaders of America's principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials – including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff – that the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States, according to White House and intelligence officials intimately familiar with the contents of the conversations.
The calls caused former top Trump deputies – including national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, as well as intelligence officials – to conclude that the President was often “delusional,” as two sources put it, in his dealings with foreign leaders. The sources said there was little evidence that the President became more skillful or competent in his telephone conversations with most heads of state over time. Rather, he continued to believe that he could either charm, jawbone or bully almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will, and often pursued goals more attuned to his own agenda than what many of his senior advisers considered the national interest.
These officials' concerns about the calls, and particularly Trump's deference to Putin, take on new resonance with reports the President may have learned in March that Russia had offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan – and yet took no action. Sources said there were calls between Putin and Trump about Trump's desire to end the American military presence in Afghanistan but they mentioned no discussion of the supposed Taliban bounties.
By far the greatest number of Trump's telephone discussions with an individual head of state were with Erdogan, who sometimes phoned the White House at least twice a week and was put through directly to the President on standing orders from Trump, according to the sources. Meanwhile, the President regularly bullied and demeaned the leaders of America's principal allies, especially two women: telling Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom she was weak and lacked courage; and telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she was “stupid.”
Trump incessantly boasted to his fellow heads of state, including Saudi Arabia's autocratic royal heir Mohammed bin Salman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, about his own wealth, genius, “great” accomplishments as President, and the “idiocy” of his Oval Office predecessors, according to the sources.
In his conversations with both Putin and Erdogan, Trump took special delight in trashing former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and suggested that dealing directly with him – Trump – would be far more fruitful than during previous administrations. “They didn't know BS,” he said of Bush and Obama – one of several derisive tropes the sources said he favored when discussing his predecessors with the Turkish and Russian leaders.
The full, detailed picture drawn by CNN's sources of Trump's phone calls with foreign leaders is consistent with the basic tenor and some substantive elements of a limited number of calls described by former national security adviser John Bolton in his book, “The Room Where It Happened.” But the calls described to CNN cover a far longer period than Bolton's tenure, are much more comprehensive – and seemingly more damning – in their sweep.
Like Bolton, sources said that the President seemed to continually conflate his own personal interests – especially for purposes of re-election and revenge against perceived critics and political enemies – with the national interest.
More than a dozen officials either listened to Trump’s phone calls in real time or were provided detailed summaries and rough-text recording printouts of the calls soon after their completion.
The sources did cite some instances in which they said Trump acted responsibly and in the national interest during telephone discussions with some foreign leaders.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment before this story published. After publication, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said, “President Trump is a world class negotiator who has consistently furthered America's interests on the world stage. From negotiating the phase one China deal and the USMCA to NATO allies contributing more and defeating ISIS, President Trump has shown his ability to advance America's strategic interests.”
One person familiar with almost all the conversations with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Canada, Australia and western Europe described the calls cumulatively as 'abominations' so grievous to US national security interests that if members of Congress heard from witnesses to the actual conversations or read the texts and contemporaneous notes, even many senior Republican members would no longer be able to retain confidence in Trump.
The insidious effect of the conversations comes from Trump's tone, his raging outbursts at allies while fawning over authoritarian strongmen, his ignorance of history and lack of preparation as much as it does from the troubling substance, according to the sources. While in office, then- Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed worry to subordinates that Trump's telephone discussions were undermining the coherent conduct of foreign relations and American objectives around the globe, one of CNN's sources said. And in recent weeks, former chief of staff Kelly has mentioned the damaging impact of the President's calls on US national security to several individuals in private.
Two sources compared many of the President's conversations with foreign leaders to Trump's recent press “briefings” on the coronavirus pandemic: free form, fact-deficient stream-of-consciousness ramblings, full of fantasy and off-the-wall pronouncements based on his intuitions, guesswork, the opinions of Fox News TV hosts and social media misinformation.
In addition to Merkel and May, the sources said, Trump regularly bullied and disparaged other leaders of the western alliance during his phone conversations – including French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – in the same hostile and aggressive way he discussed the coronavirus with some of America's governors.