Carl Bernstein breaks down Trump's distressing phone calls

From packing Putin to abusing allies and neglecting his advisers, Trump’s phone rang an alarm for U.S. officials

The calls caused former top Trump lawmakers – including national security advisers HR McMaster and John Bolton, Secretary of Defense 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 ” delusion “, according to two sources, in dealings with foreign leaders. Sources said there was little evidence that the president had become more skilled or competent in his telephone conversations with most heads of state over time. Instead, he still believed he could either charm, support the bone, or harass almost any foreign leader to capitulate at his will, and often pursued goals more suited to his own plan than those considered by many of his senior advisers to be in the national interest.

The largest number of Trump telephone conversations with individual heads of state were with Erdogan, who sometimes telephoned the White House at least twice a week and was addressed directly to the president on Trump’s standing orders, sources said. Meanwhile, the president regularly harassed and condemned the leaders of America’s major allies, especially two women: telling Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom that she was weak and lacked courage; and told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she was “stupid.”

Trump has constantly bragged with his fellow heads of state, including Saudi Arabia’s autocratic successor 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 predecessor, sources said.

In talks with Putin and Erdogan, Trump was particularly pleased with the tracing of 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 the BS,” Bush and Obama said – one of several mocking tropes from which sources said he favored when he spoke to predecessors with Turkish and Russian leaders.

The full, detailed picture drawn by CNN’s sources of Trump’s phone calls to foreign leaders is consistent with the basic tenor and some substantive elements of the limited number of calls described by the 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 term, they are much more comprehensive – and seemingly more damned – in their processing.

Like Bolton, CNN sources said the president appears to continuously compare his personal interests – especially for the purpose of re-election and revenge against perceived critics and political enemies – with the national interest.

To protect the anonymity of those describing calls for this report, CNN will not disclose the titles of its jobs or directly list them directly. Dozens of officials either eavesdropped on presidential phone calls in real time or received detailed summaries and prints of texts around the time of completion, CNN sources said. CNN continuously surveyed the sources over a four-month period, which spanned June.

Sources cited some cases in which they said Trump acted responsibly and in the national interest during telephone conversations with some foreign leaders. CNN contacted Kelly, McMaster and Tillerson for comment and has not received a response since Monday afternoon. Mattis did not comment.

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The White House did not respond to a request for comment prior to the publication of this story. After the announcement, White House Deputy Spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said: “President Trump is a world-class negotiator who has consistently promoted American interests on the world stage. From phase negotiations, one China-USMCA agreement to NATO allies have contributed to the greater defeat of ISIS. “President Trump has shown his ability to advance American strategic interests.”

One person familiar with almost all conversations with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Canada, Australia and Western Europe described the calls cumulatively as “abominations” so pushed for US national security interests that if members of Congress heard real conversations from witnesses or read texts and contemporary notes , even many senior Republican members could no longer maintain confidence in the president.

They are attacking key allied leaders – especially women

The intimidating effect of the conversation stems from Trump’s tone, his furious outbursts by allies as they cheered for authoritarian stronger, his ignorance of history and lack of preparation as much as of troubling matter, sources claim. While on duty, then-National Intelligence Director Dan Coats expressed concern to subordinates that Trump’s phone conversations were undermining the coherent conduct of foreign relations and U.S. targets around the world, a CNN source said. And in recent weeks, former Chief of Staff Kelly has mentioned the detrimental impact of the president’s calls on U.S. national security on several individuals.

Two sources compared many presidential talks with foreign leaders to Trump’s recent “briefings” on the coronavirus pandemic: free form, incomplete facts in a series of consciousness, full fantasies and excuses outside the wall based on his intuitions, speculation, Fox News TV host opinions and disinformation on social networks.

In addition to Merkel and May, sources said, Trump regularly harassed and belittled other Western alliance leaders in 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 about the coronavirus. with some of the American governors.

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting in London in December 2019.

Apart from Erdogan, no foreign leader has launched more calls with Trump than Macron, sources said, with the French president often trying to persuade Trump to change course on environmental and security policy issues – including climate change and the US withdrawal from Iran’s multilateral nuclear plant. program consent.

Macron usually didn’t “get anywhere” in the essentials, while Trump became nervous at the request of the French president and subjected him to self-initiated lectures and lectures that one source described as personalized verbal “whips,” especially about France and other countries not meeting goals. NATO spending, their liberal immigration policies, or a trade imbalance with the United States.

But his closest attacks, sources said, were aimed at women heads of state. In conversations with Maya and Merkel, the president belittled and condemned them in diatribes that one source described as “almost-sadistic,” and others confirmed. Some of the things he said to Angela Merkel are simply unbelievable. He called her “stupid” and accused her of having a Russian in her pocket … The hardest part is [in the phone calls] with those he sees as weak and weakest with those with whom he should be tough. ”

The calls are “so unusual,” a German official confirmed, that special measures have been taken in Berlin to ensure their content remains secret. The official described Trump’s behavior with Merkel in the calls as “very aggressive” and said the circle of German officials involved in monitoring Merkel’s calls with Trump had shrunk: “It’s just a small circle of people involved and the reason, the main reason is that they are really problematic. ”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump talk during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France in August 2019.
Trump’s conversations with Maya British Prime Minister from 2016 to 2019, they were described as “humiliating and violent,” and Trump attacked her as a “fool” and headless in his approach to Brexit, NATO, and immigration issues.

“He would be upset about something with Theresa May. Then he would get angry with her on the phone call,” one source said. “It’s the same interaction in every environment – coronavirus or Brexit – without the use of filters.”

Merkel remained calm and outwardly unencumbered by Trump’s attacks – “like water from a duck’s back,” according to one source – and she regularly battled his fiery recitations of facts. A German official, quoted above, said that during his visit to the White House two years ago, Trump showed “very questionable behaviors” that were “quite aggressive … [T]The chancellor really stayed calm, and he does it on the phone. “

Prime Minister Maja, on the other hand, became irritated and nervous in talks with the president. “Obviously he intimidated her and he intended to,” one CNN source said. In response to a request for comment on Trump’s behavior in calls with Maya, Britain’s Downing Street directed CNN to its website. The website provides brief descriptions of the contents of some calls and avoids any mention of tone or tension. The French embassy in Washington declined to comment, while the Russian and Turkish embassies did not respond to requests for comment.

Concerns over calls with Putin and Erdogan

The calls with Putin and Erdogan were particularly awful about Trump, who almost never prepared substantially and thus left him vulnerable to being exploited in various ways, according to sources – in part because those talks (as well as most heads of state) , were almost certainly recorded by the security services and other agencies of their states.

In a telephone exchange with Putin, sources reported, the president spoke mostly about himself, often multiple times, in self-threatening terms: uttering his “unprecedented” success in building the U.S. economy; claiming in ugly language how much smarter and “stronger” he is than the “imbeciles” and “weaklings” who came to the presidency before him (especially Obama); enjoying his experience of running Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, while satisfying Putin’s admiration and approval. Putin “just surpassed him,” a high-ranking official said, comparing the Russian leader to a chess grandmaster and Trump to an occasional lady player. While Putin “destabilizes the West,” the source said, the president of the United States “sits there and thinks that he can build enough as a businessman and a strong man that Putin will respect him.” (Sometimes the conversations between Putin and Trump sounded like “two guys in a steam bath,” the source added.)

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are coming to a meeting in Helsinki in July 2018.

In numerous calls to Putin described for CNN, Trump has left top national security aides and his chiefs of staff furious, less because of certain concessions than because of his manner – immensely instructed in Putin’s admiration and seemingly seeking his approval – though usually neglecting essential expertise policies and important issues on an ongoing bilateral agenda, including human rights; and the arms control agreement, which was never resolved in a way that the progressives shared Russian and American goals that both Putin and Trump advocated for advantage, CNN sources said.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has touched on the topic of “America First” as his northern star in foreign policy, expressing the view that U.S. allies and opponents have taken advantage of the economic advantage of American goodwill in trade. And that America’s closest allies will have to increase their share of collective defense spending. He often justifies his apparent respect for Putin by claiming that Russia is a major world player and that it is in the interest of the United States to have a constructive and friendly relationship – demanding a reset with Moscow through his personal dialogue with Putin.

Putin is using coronavirus chaos to directly play Trump

In separate interviews, two high-level administration officials familiar with most of Trump-Putin’s calls said the president had naively elevated Russia – a second-rate totalitarian state with less than 4% of world GDP – and that its authoritarian leader was almost parity with the United States and its president undermining the sharper, more realistic view of Russia expressed by the U.S. Congress, U.S. intelligence agencies, and the long-standing postwar political consensus of the U.S. and its European allies. “He is [Trump] gives an advantage that was hard won in the Cold War, “said one official – in part” giving Putin and Russia a legitimacy they never had, “the official said. He gave Russia a way of salvation – because there is no doubt that they are in a decline in power … He is playing with something he does not understand and gives them the power they would use [aggressively]. ”

Both officials cited Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria – a move that benefited Turkey as well as Russia – as perhaps the grossest example. “He gave the trade,” one of them said.

The frequency of talks with Erdogan – in which the Turkish president constantly pressured Trump for political concessions and other benefits – was of particular concern to McMaster, Bolton and Kelly, all the more so for the ease with which Erdogan bypassed the normal National Security Council. protocols and procedures to the president, two sources said.

President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are attending a White House press conference in November 2019.

Erdogan became so skilled when he knew when to contact the president directly that some White House aides became convinced that the Turkish security services in Washington were using Trump’s schedule and where they could provide Erdogan with information on when the president would be called.

Sometimes Erdogan reached him on the golf course, and Trump would delay the game while the two of them talked for a long time.

Two sources described the president as terribly uninformed about the history of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East, and said he was often caught on guard and lacked enough knowledge to get equally involved in the necessary policy debate with Erdogan. “Erdogan took him to the cleaners,” said one of the sources.

Sources said that harmful decisions of US policy towards Syria – including a presidential directive to withdraw US forces from the country, which then allowed Turkey to attack Kurds who helped the US fight ISIS and weakened NATO’s role in the conflict – were directly associated with Erdogan’s ability to stop Trump through phone calls.

The United States is more alone than ever, at a time when the world needs its leadership

Trump has occasionally resented Erdogan – sometimes over demands that Turkey be granted preferential trade status, and because a Turkish leader would not release a imprisoned U.S. evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, accused of “aiding terrorism” in a 2016 coup that tried to overthrow Erdogan. Brunson was finally released in October 2018.

Despite the lack of prior notice for many of Erdogan’s calls, there are full sets of simultaneous notes by marked notaries in the White House, as well as rough computer texts of conversations generated by the voices, sources say.

According to one high-level source, there are also summaries and readings of conversations with the president’s talks with Erdogan that could reinforce Bolton’s accusations against Trump in the so-called “Halkbank case,” involving a large Turkish bank with suspected ties to Erdogan and his family. The source said that the matter was initiated in several telephone conversations between Erdogan and Trump.

Bolton wrote in his book that in December 2018, at Erdogan’s invitation, Trump offered to interfere in the investigation of the then US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman in a Turkish bank, accused of violating US sanctions against Iran.

“Trump then told Erdogan that he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors are not his people, but Obama’s people, a problem that will be solved when he is replaced by his people,” Bolton wrote. Berman’s office eventually filed an indictment against the bank in October 2019 for fraud, money laundering and other crimes related to participation in a multimillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. Trump fired Berman on June 20 – whose office is also investigating Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney – after the prosecutor refused to resign in the direction of Attorney General William Barr.

Unlike Bolton, CNN sources did not claim or specifically suggest that Trump’s calls with Erdogan could be grounds for impeachment because of possible evidence of the president’s illegal behavior. Instead, they characterized Trump’s calls with heads of state together as evidence of Trump’s general “unfitness” for the presidency based on temperament and incompetence, a claim Bolton made as well as in an interview to promote his book with ABC News last week: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for office. I don’t think he’s in charge of doing the job, ”Bolton said.

Feedback and family complaints encourage Trump’s approach

CNN spoke to sources familiar with the president’s phone calls several times over the course of four months. In their interviews, the sources were very careful not to reveal specific information about national security and secret details – but described the broad content of many calls, and the overall tenor and methodology of Trump’s approach in his telephone conversations with foreign leaders.

In addition to the rough voice-generated software transcription, almost all of Trump’s telephone conversations with Putin, Erdogan, and Western alliance leaders have been supplemented and documented by extensive contemporary notes (and, often, summaries) prepared by Fiona Hill Deputy Assistant to President and NSC Senior Director for Europe and Russia until her resignation last year. Hill listened to most of the president’s calls with Putin, Erdogan and European leaders, she said in a closed-door testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last November.

Break Bolton's account of the White House in turmoil

Elements of Hill’s testimony, if questioned by investigators in Congress, could provide a detailed plan for the president’s extensively documented conversations, sources said. White House officials and intelligence officials familiar with the voice-generated transcripts and supporting documents agreed that their contents could be detrimental to the president’s representation with members of Congress of both parties – and the public – if revealed in great detail. (There is little doubt that Trump would invoke the executive privilege of keeping the talks private. However, some former officials with detailed knowledge of many of the talks could be willing to testify about them, sources said.)

In one of the earliest calls from 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 Assistant Secretary of State Tillerson.

“The call was everywhere,” said the NSC deputy who read a detailed summary of the conversation – he spoke meaningfully and at length with Putin, and Trump struggled in brief autobiographical bursts of boasting, self-congratulations and flattery towards Putin. As they described to CNN, Kushner and Ivanka Trump were immediately delighted when they praised Trump’s call – while Tillerson (who knew Putin well from his years in Russia as oil chief executive), Hill and McMaster were skeptical.

Hill – the author of Putin’s definitive biography – began to explain some of the nuances he noticed from the call, according to CNN sources – offering insight into Putin’s psychology, his typical “smooth speech” and linear approach and what the Russian leader was trying to achieve in the call. Hill was cut short by Trump, and the president continued to discuss the call with Jared and Ivanka, making it clear that he wanted to hear congratulations on his daughter and her husband’s assessment, not how Hill, Tillerson or McMaster judged the conversation.

McMaster saw the early phone call with Putin as indicative of the conduct of the entire relationship between Russia and the Trump administration, according to sources – a conclusion reached by later national security advisers and chiefs of staff, as well as a number of senior intelligence officials. : unlike previous administrations, there were relatively few meaningful agreements between military and diplomatic professionals, even at the highest levels, because Trump – distrustful of experts and disgusting in their attempts to meet him – had a mostly ad hoc relationship with Putin and almost I’m all alone. Eventually, Putin and the Russians learned that “no one has the authority to do anything” – and the Russian leader used that insight to his advantage, as one CNN source said.

Kushners were also present for other important calls with foreign leaders and were clearly receiving primacy, and the president encouraged him even on foreign policy issues in which his daughter and her husband had no experience. Almost never, according to CNN sources, would Trump read the information materials prepared for him by members of the CIA and NSC before his calls with the heads of state.

“They won’t consult with them, they won’t get their wisdom either,” said one source, who cited bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as the top of the list of leaders Trump “brings in and calls on without anyone being prepared,” a scenario that often confronted by the NSC and intelligence aides. The source added that the “helpless reaction of the assistant” was often: “Oh, God, don’t call.”

“Trump’s opinion is that he is a better judge of character than anyone else,” said one of the CNN sources. The president has consistently rejected advice from U.S. defense, intelligence and national security principles that the Russian president should be approached more decisively and with less confidence. CNN sources pointed to the most prominent public example as “emblematic”: Trump, who stood next to the Russian president at their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in June 2018, and said he “saw no reason why Russia should interfere. in the 2016 presidential election – despite the findings of the entire U.S. intelligence community that Moscow had. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful today in his denial,” Trump said.

The common, irresistible dynamic that characterizes Trump’s talks with both authoritarian dictators and leaders of the world’s largest democracies is his consistent assertion of himself as a key subject and subtext of the vocation – almost never the United States and its historic place and leadership in the world. .

In numerous calls to the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Canada – America’s closest allies over the past 75 years, the entire postwar period – Trump has usually established a lawsuit almost as the default or leitmotif of talks, anything on the agenda, according to those sources. .

“Everything was always personalized. Everyone was doing horrible things to tear us away – which meant he was rie ‘me’ – Trump – off. He couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see or focus on the bigger picture,” he said. an American official.

The source cited a visible example in which Trump resisted asking Angela Merkel (at the urging of Britain) to publicly hold Russia responsible for the so-called ‘Salisbury’ radioactive poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter, in which Putin denied any Russian involvement despite extensive evidence to the contrary. “It took a lot of effort” to call Trump on the subject, one source said. Instead of addressing Russia’s responsibility for the poisonings and holding it to an international account, Trump is focusing calls – personally humiliating – on Germany’s and Merkel’s supposedly deadly approach to the Allied burden-sharing. In the end, sources said, persuaded by NSC staff, Trump eventually dealt with the poisoning, almost rudely.

“With almost every problem, everything is needed [in his phone calls] does anyone ask him as president on behalf of the United States, and he doesn’t see it; goes into reality; he is not interested in issues of cooperation or working on them together; instead, it distracts things or pushes real problems into a corner, “a U.S. official said.

“There was no point in‘ Team America ’in the talks, nor in the United States as a historical power with certain democratic principles and free world leadership,” the official said. “On the contrary. It’s as if the United States has disappeared. It’s always been just me.” ”

UPDATE: This story has been updated with a White House comment.

CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

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