Not long after Donald Trump became president, he did what all new presidents do: he held introductory phone calls with many foreign leaders. We had a sense that some of these calls went very badly for the Republican, but it wasn’t until today that we learned just how disastrous some of these conversations were.
The Washington Post obtained transcripts of the discussions Trump had with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – the fact this information leaked is itself extraordinary – and perhaps the most striking revelation had to do with the American president’s argument about his precious border wall.
President Trump made building a wall along the southern U.S. border and forcing Mexico to pay for it core pledges of his campaign.
But in his first White House call with Mexico’s president, Trump described his vow to charge Mexico as a growing political problem, pressuring the Mexican leader to stop saying publicly that his government would never pay.
“You cannot say that to the press,” Trump said repeatedly, according to a transcript of the Jan. 27 call obtained by The Washington Post. Trump made clear that he realized the funding would have to come from other sources but threatened to cut off contact if Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto continued to make defiant statements.
Reading the transcript, it’s hard not to notice Trump’s desperation. He seems to understand that Mexico won’t pay for the wall – despite what he repeatedly promised voters – but he pleads with the Mexican president not to make him look bad. “[I]f you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that,” Trump said.
Remember, Trump’s claim to fame is his supposedly unrivaled ability to strike amazing deals. And that’s one of the reasons this peek behind the Oval Office curtain is so important: the transcript offers us a chance to see the Master Negotiator in action on one of his top campaign priorities.
Of course, in this case, Trump’s deal-making abilities involved pleading with a foreign president not to acknowledge reality, facing resistance, and not knowing what to do next. Trump seemed to realize that he’d painted himself into a corner by making promises he couldn’t keep, and he apparently expected the Mexican president to rescue him.
In the same conversation, Trump told Pena Nieto, in reference to the addiction crisis, “Up in New Hampshire – I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den – is coming from the southern border.”
It’s worth noting that Trump lost New Hampshire. Let’s also not forget that it’s not altogether normal for an American president to blast an American state to a foreign leader.
The call with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t much better. Trump seemed preoccupied with an existing agreement in which the United States would admit 1,250 refugees, which Trump saw as some kind of affront to him personally.
“This is going to kill me,” the American president said. “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country. And now I am agreeing to take 2,000 people and I agree I can vet them, but that puts me in a bad position. It makes me look so bad and I have only been here a week.”
The Australian prime minister patiently tried to help Trump understand reality, but the American wouldn’t budge. Eventually, Trump said, “As far as I am concerned that is enough, Malcolm. I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”
Offered a chance to discuss international policy in Syria and North Korea, Trump abruptly wrapped up the call.