From pandering to Putin to abusing allies and ignoring his own advisers, Trump's phone calls alarm US officials - CNN
Jun 29, 2020 7 mins, 30 secs
CNN's 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.

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.

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.

Next to Erdogan, no foreign leader initiated more calls with Trump than Macron, the sources said, with the French President often trying to convince Trump to change course on environmental and security policy matters -- including climate change and US withdrawal from the Iranian multilateral nuclear accord.

The official described Trump's behavior with Merkel in the calls as "very aggressive" and said that the circle of German officials involved in monitoring Merkel's calls with Trump has shrunk: "It's just a small circle of people who are involved and the reason, the main reason, is that they are indeed problematic."

Trump's conversations with May, the UK Prime Minister from 2016 to 2019, were described as "humiliating and bullying," with Trump attacking her as "a fool" and spineless in her approach to Brexit, NATO and immigration matters.

Concerns over calls with Putin and Erdogan

The calls with Putin and Erdogan were particularly egregious in terms of Trump almost never being prepared substantively and thus leaving him susceptible to being taken advantage of in various ways, according to the sources -- in part because those conversations (as with most heads of state), were almost certainly recorded by the security services and other agencies of their countries.

In his phone exchanges with Putin, the sources reported, the President talked mostly about himself, frequently in over-the-top, self-aggrandizing terms: touting his "unprecedented" success in building the US economy; asserting in derisive language how much smarter and "stronger" he is than "the imbeciles" and "weaklings" who came before him in the presidency (especially Obama); reveling in his experience running the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, and obsequiously courting Putin's admiration and approval.

While Putin "destabilizes the West," said this source, the President of the United States "sits there and thinks he can build himself up enough as a businessman and tough guy that Putin will respect him." (At times, the Putin-Trump conversations sounded like "two guys in a steam bath," a source added.)

In numerous calls with Putin that were described to CNN, Trump left top national security aides and his chiefs of staff flabbergasted, less because of specific concessions he made than because of his manner -- inordinately solicitous of Putin's admiration and seemingly seeking his approval -- while usually ignoring substantive policy expertise and important matters on the standing bilateral agenda, including human rights; and an arms control agreement, which never got dealt with in a way that advanced shared Russian and American goals that both Putin and Trump professed to favor, CNN's sources said.

The frequency of the calls with Erdogan -- in which the Turkish president continually pressed Trump for policy concessions and other favors -- was especially worrisome to McMaster, Bolton and Kelly, the more so because of the ease with which Erdogan bypassed normal National Security Council protocols and procedures to reach the President, said two of the sources.

Erdogan became so adept at knowing when to reach the President directly that some White House aides became convinced that Turkey's security services in Washington were using Trump's schedule and whereabouts to provide Erdogan with information about when the President would be available for a call.

On some occasions Erdogan reached him on the golf course and Trump would delay play while the two spoke at length.

Two sources described the President as woefully uninformed about the history of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East generally, and said he was often caught off guard, and lacked sufficient knowledge to engage on equal terms in nuanced policy discussion with Erdogan.

The sources said that deleterious US policy decisions on Syria -- including the President's directive to pull US forces out of the country, which then allowed Turkey to attack Kurds who had helped the US fight ISIS and weakened NATO's role in the conflict -- were directly linked to Erdogan's ability to get his way with Trump on the phone calls.

Trump occasionally became angry at Erdogan -- sometimes because of demands that Turkey be granted preferential trade status, and because the Turkish leader would not release an imprisoned American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, accused of 'aiding terrorism' in the 2016 coup that attempted to overthrow Erdogan.

Despite the lack of advance notice for many of Erdogan's calls, full sets of contemporaneous notes from designated notetakers at the White House exist, as well as rough voice-generated computer texts of the conversations, the sources said.

According to one high-level source, there are also existing summaries and conversation-readouts of the President's discussions with Erdogan that might reinforce Bolton's allegations against Trump in the so-called "Halkbank case," involving a major Turkish bank with suspected ties to Erdogan and his family.

Unlike Bolton, CNN's sources did not assert or suggest specifically that Trump's calls with Erdogan might have been grounds for impeachment because of possible evidence of unlawful conduct by the President.

(There is little doubt that Trump would invoke executive privilege to keep the conversations private. However, some former officials with detailed knowledge of many of the conversations might be willing to testify about them, sources said.)

In one of the earliest calls between Putin and Trump, the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were in the room to listen — joining McMaster, Tillerson, Hill, and a State Department aide to Tillerson.

"The call was all over the place," said an NSC deputy who read a detailed summary of the conversation -- with Putin speaking substantively and at length, and Trump propping himself up in short autobiographical bursts of bragging, self-congratulation and flattery toward Putin.

Almost never, according to CNN's sources, would Trump read the briefing materials prepared for him by the CIA and NSC staff in advance of his calls with heads of state.

"He won't consult them, he won't even get their wisdom," said one of the sources, who cited Saudi Arabia's bin Salman as near the top of a list of leaders whom Trump "picks up and calls without anybody being prepared," a scenario that frequently confronted NSC and intelligence aides.

"President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump said.

The common, overwhelming dynamic that characterizes Trump's conversations with both authoritarian dictators and leaders of the world's greatest democracies is his consistent assertion of himself as the defining subject and subtext of the calls -- almost never the United States and its historic place and leadership in the world, according to sources intimately familiar with the calls.

In numerous calls with the leaders of the UK, France, Germany, Australia and Canada -- America's closest allies of the past 75 years, the whole postwar era -- Trump typically established a grievance almost as a default or leitmotif of the conversation, whatever the supposed agenda, according to those sources.


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