That Kremlin statement was apparently the first that the reporters who cover the White House heard of the conversation. Late that evening, the White House put out a brief statement:
“President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin today and expressed concern over the vast wildfires afflicting Siberia. The leaders also discussed trade between the two countries.”
The duration of the call and the nature of the conversation about trade are unclear.
This seems, in the abstract, like it’s not a big deal. Trump called Putin and they talked about wildfires. Who cares.
Well, one specific reason to care is that a whistleblower within the intelligence community has, according to Washington Post reporting, raised concerns about the content of an apparently recent conversation between Trump and a foreign leader.
“Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a 'promise’ that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community,” The Post’s Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris reported Wednesday.
It’s not known which foreign leader was involved in the alleged conversation, but, then, we also may not know all of the leaders with whom Trump has spoken. We know about the Putin call because the Russians reported it. Who knows if there have been other calls with other leaders who have been less scrupulous — or less calculating — about revealing those chats?
In past administrations, there was a system for informing the public about conversations between the president and foreign leaders. After such conversations, the White House would publish a “readout,” a summary, sometimes detailed, of what was discussed between the two parties. The idea is a simple one: The American public should know what the president is doing. Those readouts had the additional side benefit of putting on the record what conversations the president was involved in and what he said, just in case there might someday be a question about whether a conversation occurred or a claim about an assertion made by the president.
The Trump White House has all but stopped providing readouts. During his first 1½ years in office, the White House was pretty good about reporting on Trump’s conversations with international leaders, though the length of those readouts dropped over time. The readouts on Trump’s in-person meetings with foreign leaders averaged 170 words in the first full six months of his presidency, for example, but only 100 words by the time the White House stopped publishing them in the summer of 2018.
(The circles below are scaled to the number of words published.)
Since then, there have been a few sporadic readouts published by the White House, but rarely.
Those readouts used to include other things, too, like meetings with congressional leaders and events focused on Trump’s legislative agenda. Readouts more specific to the concerns of policymaking have also gone out the window.
This is a function of Trump specifically. Vice President Pence’s team continues to produce readouts of his international interactions. What’s more, those readouts tend to be longer now than they were at the beginning of Trump’s administration.
Even the first lady’s interactions with international figures and organizations still get readouts — and lengthy ones. She doesn’t have many such meetings, but her team appears to be assiduous about producing readouts.
This decline in the amount of information Trump makes public is of a piece with other patterns. The daily news briefing became a monthly opportunity to berate the press — and then just stopped entirely. When he first took office, Trump continued the practice of producing a weekly address to the nation, but the White House gave up on that in 2018, as well. Trump’s team likes to celebrate his openness because of his willingness to entertain questions as he’s heading onto or off Air Force One or Marine One on his way somewhere else. He does that a lot, but those interactions occur at his discretion and only for as long as he deems fit. Often, there’s helicopter noise in the background, making his answers difficult to hear.
In a vacuum, the lack of transparency from the White House is problematic largely as an academic issue. The White House is, as they say, the people’s house, but Trump seems to treat it like a slightly more run-down version of his penthouse at Trump Tower. If your view is that the public should be informed about what the president is doing on its behalf (regardless of whether the public cares on a day-to-day basis), Trump’s team simply disagrees.
But that’s in a vacuum. We now have a case in which the details of Trump’s interactions with a foreign leader may be of enormous importance — and we’re in a position of not even knowing which leaders may have been involved.
Which, it seems, is exactly how the White House likes it.