The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The incoherent tale of Trump’s presidency, in 4 private-call transcripts

In a phone call on Jan. 2, President Trump insisted he won the state and threatened vague legal consequences. Here are excerpts from the call. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)
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President Trump might be the victim of more leaks than anyone in modern American history. His chaotic style and his disregard for norms and legal boundaries have led a historic number of allies, administration officials and others to violate expectations of confidentiality in the name of raising red flags about what’s happening behind the scenes.

And just as Trump’s presidency began with a major leak of his phone calls, it now comes to a close with another.

Four years ago, it was Trump’s wayward calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico a week after his inauguration that made waves after The Washington Post published transcripts of them. Today, it’s Trump’s call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) — also a scoop from The Post and a remarkable document epitomizing Trump’s increasingly desperate and flailing attempts to steal the 2020 election. And in between, we got another unfiltered look at Trump’s interactions with a fellow foreign leader, thanks to the publication of a rough transcript of a call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to Trump’s impeachment.

The calls have combined to provide a unique and telling window on Trump’s chaotic style, his bluster, his lack of familiarity with basic diplomacy and policies, and his focus on himself first and foremost. While these have all been features of Trump’s public persona, the transcripts are even more unfiltered and at times have shown a president showing disdain for the basic functions of an American president.

The most significant and consistent thread running through them is how consumed Trump is with his own political standing.

In his January 2017 call with then-President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, for instance, Trump pleaded with Peña Nieto to stop saying that Mexico wouldn’t pay for Trump’s proposed border wall, as Trump had promised, because it made Trump look bad. Trump even bargained with him that it was the “least important” issue they were discussing — despite it having been perhaps the most pervasive rallying cry of Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Trump said that his rhetoric had put each of them in a “political bind” and proposed that the two of them just talk around the issue.

“Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important to talk about,” Trump said, a statement that would have been news to his supporters.

Trump’s call with Australia’s then-prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was also focused almost exclusively on Trump minding his personal politics. The call quickly broke down over an agreement the Obama administration had reached to accept more than 1,000 refugees from islands off the coast of Australia. Trump’s objection seemed to be less to the terms than how it could make him — a man who campaigned against accepting refugees — look.

“This is going to kill me,” Trump 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.”

Trump’s overriding personal concern was also what landed him in hot water over the Ukraine call, given that he used it to pressure Zelensky to investigate issues pertaining to Joe Biden — a request that even Republicans who voted against removing Trump from office said was wrong.

The Georgia call is most notable for this same reason. It features Trump trying to massage the details to benefit himself personally. At one point he even implores Raffensperger to find just enough votes — 11,780 — to overturn the result in the state. This is not the request of a president earnestly seeking out voter fraud; it’s the request of someone just trying to obtain a certain outcome by whatever means necessary.

“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state,” Trump said, adding at another point: “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.”

Trump referenced that number of votes no fewer than 18 times on the call.

Another feature of these calls has been Trump’s utter lack of familiarity with the details of the situations he’s trying to arrest.

In Georgia, as Philip Bump notes, Trump flubbed many of the details and pushed several debunked conspiracy theories that Raffensperger and a top aide rebutted in real time.

On the Ukraine call, Trump also ran headlong into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, most notably that Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor to help his son — an allegation for which there is no real evidence.

Trump also failed to grasp the true nature of the refugee agreement on his call with Turnbull. He asked whether it was something that President Barack Obama had agreed to (which it was), and he repeatedly suggested that the number of refugees in the agreement was higher than it was. When Trump suggested it was 2,000 and Turnbull corrected him that it was lower, Trump then responded, “I have also heard like 5,000 as well.”

Another feature of the calls has been denigration. Trump speaks dismissively about others with the kind of freedom you might expect in a private phone call but you wouldn’t expect in any context in diplomacy.

During his call with Peña Nieto, Trump notably referred to the swing state of New Hampshire as “a drug-infested den.”

On his call with Zelensky, he bad-mouthed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying: “Germany does almost nothing for you. All they do is talk, and I think it’s something that you should really ask them about. When I was speaking to Angela Merkel she talks Ukraine, but she doesn’t do anything.”

And on his call with Raffensperger, Trump bad-mouthed Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), despite Kemp and Raffensperger being allies. “If I didn’t run, Brian wouldn’t have had even a shot, either in the general or in the primary,” Trump said, though Trump ran in 2016 and Kemp won the governorship in 2018. “He was dead, dead as a doornail. … What a schmuck I was.”

That last one also falls in line with a feature of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders: Stories — often embellished ones — of his own electoral fortitude.

“In the latest election, I won with a large percentage of Hispanic voters,” Trump told Peña Nieto. “I do not know if you heard, but with Cuba, I had 84 percent, with the Cuban American vote. But overall generally, I had well over 30 percent, and everyone was shocked to see this.”

He added later: “We lost a lot of factories in Ohio and Michigan, and I won these states — some of these states have not been won in 38 years by a Republican, and I won them very easily.” No states fit that description.

He told Turnbull of the refugee deal: “Look, I do not know how you got them to sign a deal like this, but that is how they lost the election. They said I had no way to 270 [electoral votes], and I got 306.”

This is, of course, a mainstay of Trump’s public commentary as well, but the fact that he sees fit to insert it into diplomatic conversations with fellow leaders to apparently attempt to impress them is striking. That’s especially the case given the narrowness of Trump’s 2016 win, which included a popular-vote loss, all of which would have been no secret to the foreign leaders. But as always, Trump needs to hyperbolize his own political capital.

The last — and perhaps overriding feature — of these Trump calls is the often incoherent mixture of flattery, threat and bargaining.

Trump’s call with Peña Nieto, for instance, included a threat of a border tax — something Peña Nieto noted had not been the subject of discussions between aides. But Trump at other points pleaded with Peña Nieto to soften his tone on not paying for the border wall. And toward the end, Trump said, “It is you and I against the world, Enrique, do not forget” — a marked contrast with Trump’s tough campaign-trail rhetoric about Mexico and illegal immigration.

The call with Turnbull turned negative rather quickly. But before Trump abruptly ended the conversation, he had suggested he would accept the refugee deal: “Okay, this shows me to be a dope. I am not like this but, if I have to do it, I will do it, but I do not like this at all.”

This Trump-call characteristic is perhaps most striking in the Raffensperger call, though. The background is that Raffensperger has been among the most vocal state GOP officials pushing back on Trump’s claims — almost without fail — and it has quite possibly cost him his political career. Yet Trump tried frequently on the call to flatter him as if he could be sweet-talked into going along with the ploy, saying that “you would be respected, really respected, if this can be straightened out before the election.”

But he also threatened Raffensperger with an unspecified criminal investigation. “That’s a criminal offense,” Trump said. “And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer.”

The thing about the contrasting messages of flattery and punishment is that they often didn’t follow any coherent line of argument. It would make sense to flatter to try to get what you want and then revert to threats if that didn’t work. But Trump’s approach in these cases wasn’t focused on either and seemed to oscillate between the two.

Almost as if he hopped on the call without a true game plan or having done his homework on the issues at hand.

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