In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state, 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. 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. 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, CNN’s 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.
To protect the anonymity of those describing the calls for this report, CNN will not reveal their job titles nor quote them at length directly. More than a dozen officials either listened to the President’s phone calls in real time or were provided detailed summaries and rough-text recording printouts of the calls soon after their completion, CNN’s sources said. The sources were interviewed by CNN repeatedly over a four-month period extending into June.
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. CNN reached out to Kelly, McMaster and Tillerson for comment and received no response as of Monday afternoon. Mattis did not comment.
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 the President.
Attacking key ally leaders – especially women
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.
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.
Macron usually got “nowhere” on substantive matters, while Trump became irritated at the French President’s stream of requests and subjected him to self-serving harangues and lectures that were described by one source as personalized verbal “whippings,” especially about France and other countries not meeting NATO spending targets, their liberal immigration policies or their trade imbalances with the US.
But his most vicious attacks, said the sources, were aimed at women heads of state. In conversations with both May and Merkel, the President demeaned and denigrated them in diatribes described as “near-sadistic” by one of the sources and confirmed by others. “Some of the things he said to Angela Merkel are just unbelievable: he called her ‘stupid,’ and accused her of being in the pocket of the Russians … He’s toughest [in the phone calls] with those he looks at as weaklings and weakest with the ones he ought to be tough with.”
The calls “are so unusual,” confirmed a German official, that special measures were taken in Berlin to ensure that their contents remained secret. 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.
“He’d get agitated about something with Theresa May, then he’d get nasty with her on the phone call,” One source said. “It’s the same interaction in every setting – coronavirus or Brexit – with just no filter applied.”
Merkel remained calm and outwardly unruffled in the face of Trump’s attacks —”like water off a duck’s back,” in the words of one source – and she regularly countered his bluster with recitations of fact. The German official quoted above said that during Merkel’s visit to the White House two years ago, Trump displayed “very questionable behavior” that “was quite aggressive … [T]he Chancellor indeed stayed calm, and that’s what she does on the phone.”
Prime Minister May, in contrast, became “flustered and nervous” in her conversations with the President. “He clearly intimidated her and meant to,” said one of CNN’s sources. In response to a request for comment about Trump’s behavior in calls with May, the UK’s Downing Street referred CNN to its website. The site lists brief descriptions of the content 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 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. Putin “just outplays” him, said a high-level administration official – comparing the Russian leader to a chess grandmaster and Trump to an occasional player of checkers. 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.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has touted the theme of “America First” as his north star in foreign policy, advancing the view that America’s allies and adversaries have taken economic advantage of US goodwill in trade. And that America’s closest allies need to increase their share of collective defense spending. He frequently justifies his seeming deference to Putin by arguing that Russia is a major world player and that it is in the United States’ interest to have a constructive and friendly relationship – requiring a reset with Moscow through his personal dialogue with Putin.
In separate interviews, two high-level administration officials familiar with most of the Trump-Putin calls said the President naively elevated Russia – a second-rate totalitarian state with less than 4% of the world’s GDP – and its authoritarian leader almost to parity with the United States and its President by undermining the tougher, more realistic view of Russia expressed by the US Congress, American intelligence agencies and the long-standing post-war policy consensus of the US and its European allies. “He [Trump] gives away the advantage that was hard won in the Cold War,” said one of the officials – in part by “giving Putin and Russia a legitimacy they never had,” the official said. “He’s given Russia a lifeline – because there is no doubt that they’re a declining power … He’s playing with something he doesn’t understand and he’s giving them power that they would use [aggressively].”
Both officials cited Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria – a move that benefited Turkey as well as Russia – as perhaps the most grievous example. “He gave away the store,” one of them 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. “Erdogan took him to the cleaners,” said one of the sources.
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.