The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend on an awkward White House dynamic in which Donald Trump needed hand-holding to get through phone meetings with foreign officials. It wasn’t a flattering picture:
On more than one occasion, John Kelly, the White House’s then-chief of staff, who was often in the room during calls with world leaders, briefly muted the line so he could caution Mr. Trump against continuing to talk about sensitive subjects, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
The small group of advisers in the room for the calls would also often pass the president notes offering guidance, the person said.
CNN had a related report yesterday, noting that Trump was “so unprepared for calls with foreign leaders that he was coached by several staff members and advisers.” CNN quoted a source who said Kelly, during his West Wing tenure, “always wanted a bunch of us to be there in the Oval (Office) … to just babysit on these calls.”
The source added, “[Trump] would go on random tangents about the Mueller investigation with foreign leaders … it was unnecessary and unhelpful. And sometimes he just wouldn’t have his facts straight and he would really rattle some of the foreign leaders with whom he spoke.”
This reporting hasn’t been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, but it’s also very easy to believe. Indeed, it’s entirely consistent with everything we know about the president, how he tries to communicate, and how he approaches his responsibilities.
But at the heart of the story isn’t just a confused amateur who’s unprepared and in need of “coaching” and “babysitting.” It’s also about a president who sees calls with foreign leaders as opportunities to abuse his power.
I don’t blame Kelly or other White House insiders for trying to steer Trump in responsible directions; I blame Trump for learning so little from the tutelage.
Consider some of the interactions we’ve learned about in recent days:
* During a phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump pressed his foreign counterpart to participate in the Republican’s campaign scheme.
* During an in-person meeting with Russian officials, Trump told his guests that he was “unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the United States did the same in other countries, an assertion that prompted alarmed White House officials to limit access to the remarks to an unusually small number of people.”
* Trump’s phone meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian leader Vladimir Putin were among the calls that so alarmed White House officials that aides took “remarkable steps to keep from becoming public.” Those steps included keeping reconstructed transcripts of the calls on “a highly classified computer system” that’s intended to hide legitimate secrets, not political embarrassments.
* During a phone meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Trump pushed his counterpart to help Attorney General Bill Barr “gather information for a Justice Department inquiry that Mr. Trump hopes will discredit the Mueller investigation.”
In each of these instances, White House officials, clearly aware of the Republican’s misconduct, took deliberate steps to cover-up Trump’s interactions – not because the calls included sensitive national security information, but because Trump used the discussions to advance his personal interests above the nation’s interests.
“Coaching” and “babysitting” are of little use when a president is determined to abuse the powers of his office.