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Opinion Why the leaked presidential transcripts are so frightening

Calls to Mexican and Australian counterparts give insight into Trump's diplomatic style (Video: The Washington Post)

The Post’s latest bombshell has dropped:

The Post has obtained transcripts of Trump’s talks with Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Produced by White House staff, the documents provide an unfiltered glimpse of Trump’s approach to the diplomatic aspect of his job, subjecting even a close neighbor and long-standing ally to streams of threats and invective as if aimed at U.S. adversaries.

Among the most disturbing exchanges were a series of petulant remarks concerning — what else? — refugees:

The Jan. 28 call with Turnbull became particularly acrimonious. “I have had it,” Trump erupted after the two argued about an agreement on refugees. “I have been making these calls all day, and this is the most unpleasant call all day.”
Before ending the call, Trump noted that at least one of his conversations that day had gone far more smoothly. “Putin was a pleasant call,” Trump said, referring to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. “This is ridiculous.” … “This is going to kill me,” he said to Turnbull. “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.”
After transcripts were released of President Trump's calls with Mexico and Australia, we take a look back at what the White House said about the conversations. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post, Photo: Alex Brandon/The Washington Post)

With the president of Mexico, Trump again made it all about him:

“On the wall, you and I both have a political problem,” Trump said. “My people stand up and say, ‘Mexico will pay for the wall,’ and your people probably say something in a similar but slightly different language.”
Trump seemed to acknowledge that his threats to make Mexico pay had left him cornered politically. “I have to have Mexico pay for the wall — I have to,” he said. “I have been talking about it for a two-year period.” …
Peña Nieto resisted, saying that Trump’s repeated threats had placed “a very big mark on our back, Mr. President.” He warned that “my position has been and will continue to be very firm, saying that Mexico cannot pay for the wall.”
Trump objected: “But you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that, and I cannot live with that.”

There are several deeply troubling aspects of all this.

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First, it is shocking to see presidential conversations released in this way. Some in the executive branch, as Anthony Scaramucci aptly put it, are intent on protecting the country from Trump. This is a good thing, by the way. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has obviously failed to plug the flood leaks, and one wonders whether a leak this egregious is meant to signal that the White House will remain dysfunctional. (Trump should understand that anything and everything in his administration that could be compromising will come out sooner or later.) Although leaking transcripts of presidential conversations is potentially very harmful in the long run, I would argue in this case that it is justified.

And that brings us to the next point: Trump is frighteningly obsessed with himself and his image to such an extent that he cannot fulfill the role of commander in chief. He cannot frame logical arguments based on public policy, and therefore comes across as, well, a fool to foreign leaders. His desire to maintain his own image suggests he’d be more than willing to make the country’s interests subordinate to his own need for personal affirmations. Dealing with foreign allies is bad enough, but one can only imagine what he has said to adversaries.

This, in turn, raises a third critical issue: Trump’s narcissism leaves him open to flattery and threats (to reveal embarrassing material, for example). That’s the worry in the Russia investigation — namely, that Vladimir Putin has “something” on Trump, which compels Trump to act in ways inimical to U.S. interests. Trump’s interests are paramount, so a cagey adversary can easily manipulate him.

As you can see, there is no magical cure for this, no Svengali who can be brought in to stop Trump from being Trump. One cannot be impeached and removed for being an embarrassment to the United States or an egomaniac temperamentally unfit for the job (that was the argument for not electing him). Unless he really goes off the deep end, invoking the 25th Amendment is not a realistic option.

That leaves members of Congress and his administration with a few options. They can try to box him off from dangerous actions (as Congress now contemplates doing in a statute to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III from being fired) and ignore tweets, although that is an incomplete solution. Alternatively, Congress can rely on the special counsel’s findings and its own investigation, finding justification in the Russia scandal to impeach and remove him. Finally, Congress can force Trump to make a choice, or looked upon differently, give him an out to leave the presidency. Enforce the Constitution’s emoluments clause (he can receive no foreign monies); affix anti-nepotism rules in statute (depriving him of his relatives’ hand-holding, at least in an official capacity); through statute require complete divestiture of senior officials’ business holdings; or pass a law forcing him and all future presidents to disclose their tax returns. Because we know Trump puts himself, his ego and his interests ahead of everything and will do almost anything to avoid looking bad, he might just decide to take his ball and go home.