The transcripts of President Donald Trump’s phone calls with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on January 27 and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on January 28—published by The Washington Post this morning—aren’t the first of their kind. The Intercept published a transcript of Trump’s April 29 phone call with Philippine’s murderous would-be dictator Rodrigo Duterte, in which Trump praised Duterte’s state-sponsored extrajudicial killings and asked for Duterte’s advice on dealing with North Korea while needlessly revealing that “we have two nuclear submarines” near North Korea. That transcript came from inside the Philippine government. This morning’s came from inside the White House, automatically making it one of the most audacious leaks in recent history.
The top line news for today follows the typical pattern of giving the lie to Trump’s assertion that a newspaper item was a lie. The Post’s Greg Miller and Phillip Rucker had reported back in February how the Turnbull conversation generally went, based off information from an unnamed “senior U.S. official.” Trump “badgered,” “bragged,” “boasted,” “blasted,” and “fumed.” The Post’s anonymous source quoted Trump as saying, “this was the worst call by far,” and said Trump ended the call 25 minutes into what was expected to be a one-hour call. After that story came out, Trump tweeted that it was “FAKE NEWS” and a lie. This morning’s transcript shows the Post’s colorful descriptions to be entirely accurate.
This leak, however, does not just cost Trump, and the pain inflicted on him may have come at a prohibitive cost. The Atlantic’s David Frum points out that the leak is itself a violation of not only an American norm but also a foundational norm of international statecraft. “No leader will again speak candidly on the phone to Washington, D.C.—at least for the duration of this presidency, and perhaps for longer. If these calls can be leaked, any call can be leaked,” he writes. The Post did say the leak came from the White House, and Frum is probably right in his speculation that it came from a top-level national security official attempting to damage Trump while leaving intact U.S. national security interests and the reputations of Nieto and Turnbull—a political surgical strike of sorts. Indeed, the transcripts do not reveal anything that hasn’t already been widely reported.
But this leak may set off a dangerous cycle that either gives Trump the advantage or puts the office of the presidency on a longterm self-destructive trajectory. Frum again:
The risk of national-security establishment overreach looms even larger . . . Trump’s violation of basic norms of government has driven people who would otherwise uphold those norms unto death to violate them in their turn. Contempt for Trump’s misconduct inspires counter-misconduct.
Nor is that the end. The less Trump can trust the regularly constituted government, the more justified he will feel in working irregularly. His irregular actions then justify more counter-irregularity from the rest of the government.
Expect to hear the words “deep state” on Fox News a lot again. Trump and significant elements within his administration walked into the White House with already deeply ingrained paranoid tendencies and believe to their bones that they are inside enemy territory fighting a shadowy cabal of “Obama loyalists” and “cosmopolitan globalist elites.” Not one day ago did we learn that a Trump appointee in the National Security Council was finally kicked out late last month after circulating a memo that may have made it to the president’s desk alleging that subversive “globalist” forces inside and outside the government are using “Maoist” tactics to bring down the Trump administration (used interchangeably with “the country”) and should therefore be considered a dire national security threat. (This is the sort of stuff that justifies dictatorships—see the now-former-Republic of Turkey.) This new leak will be framed as a vindication of precisely this kind of paranoia and could lead Trump to work even harder to further ensconce the presidency and find ways to weaponize his executive powers.
So, given all the risk, what do these transcripts reveal? For over a year, it has been argued that Trump is “unfit” and “lacks the capacity” to be president. Most of the evidence for this has been obvious yet shallow: Trump’s barely English-language rally rants, his interviews with newspapers in which he betrays near absolute ignorance about the most basic of matters, his abominable tweets, his cringeworthy joint press conferences with heads of state, and so on. After being limited to studying the optical parts of his presidency and some of the consequences of his actions, we’ve now finally been afforded the chance to witness firsthand Trump doing his job: interacting with another head of state and defending or attempting to advance American interests. (Let’s set aside, for now, whether what he thinks are America’s interests are truly America’s interests.)
And he simply cannot do it. This is not about willpower. It’s plain capability. The Post’s initial description of that acrimonious phone call with Turnbull was accurate, but now we can rewrite the lede: President Donald J. Trump was incapable of grasping an international situation of fairly low-grade complexity, and he imperiled relations with a close U.S. ally because of it.
Trump did not play dumb; he did not choose to not understand the situation. Trump plainly lacked the cognitive capabilities to process Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words (and Australians speak English!), understand the why and what of the situation, see that the situation was not necessarily in direct conflict with his own interests, notice that the issue was delicate for Australia, and come up with his own ideas taking into account the information presented to him.
The situation, briefly: Australia, in an attempt to deter seaborne human trafficking, has barred entry to any refugees attempting to arrive illegally by boat. Refugees who are caught doing so have been relocated to Nauru and Manus Island. Australia does not want to grant them entry to Australia, but neither does it want to send them back to their countries of origin (mostly in South and Central Asia). Turnbull and Obama struck a deal whereby the U.S. would commit to at least consider resettling some of the refugees on American soil, and only up to 1,250 would be taken if the U.S. chooses to do so. In exchange, Australia would accept more refugees from Central America attempting to cross our southern border.
As Turnbull tried pointing out to Trump, this deal was entirely consistent with Trump’s then freshly signed executive order suspending all refugee programs. The U.S. government would “extreme vet” refugees in Nauru and Manus—all of whom Australia has already vetted and ascertained to be non-threatening economic refugees—and could choose not to accept any of them.
Turnbull repeatedly attempted to explain this, but to no avail—Trump simply could not grasp the concept, his mind trapped by axioms of his own making, like the notion that all refugees are would-be terrorists.
But the truly remarkable thing is that Trump, despite fuming at what a stupid, awful, no-good terrible deal it was, did not scratch the deal, either on the phone or thereafter. Turnbull got Trump to commit to it. A similar thing happened in Trump’s call with Nieto. In the end, Nieto got Trump to stop saying that Mexico would pay for the wall. These are are two more cases of Trump being a blustery pushover, and the list of such cases is already long. World leaders seem to have taken notice and are making the adjustments to benefit from it. Trump’s rather severe cognitive limitations make him extremely suggestible.
That Trump can’t do his job was already plain to many. But the transcripts finally furnish inconclusive proof that this presidency is irretrievable. No amount of tutoring, advising, or coaching can solve for this. We’ve had fantastically uneducated presidents before. This is something entirely more grave. Trump’s appointed paranoiacs in the National Security Council are right: American national security is facing a threat from within.
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