He promised the president of Peru that he would deliver to his country a C-130 military cargo plane overnight, a logistical nightmare that set off a herculean scramble in the West Wing and Pentagon.
And in a later call with Putin, Trump asked the former KGB officer for his guidance in forging a friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — a fellow authoritarian hostile to the United States.
Starting long before revelations about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president rocked Washington, Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders were an anxiety-ridden set of events for his aides and members of the administration, according to former and current officials. They worried that Trump would make promises he shouldn’t keep, endorse policies the United States long opposed, commit a diplomatic blunder that jeopardized a critical alliance, or simply pressure a counterpart for a personal favor.
“There was a constant undercurrent in the Trump administration of [senior staff] who were genuinely horrified by the things they saw that were happening on these calls,” said one former White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations. “Phone calls that were embarrassing, huge mistakes he made, months and months of work that were upended by one impulsive tweet.”
But Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went beyond whether the leader of the free world had committed a faux pas, and into grave concerns he had engaged in a possible crime or impeachable offense. The release last week of a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals as well as the release of a rough transcript of the July call led to House Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump.
The Ukraine controversy has put a renewed focus on Trump’s unorthodox way of interacting with fellow world leaders in diplomatic calls.
Critics, including some former administration officials, contend that Trump’s behavior on calls with foreign leaders has at times created unneeded tensions with allies and sent troubling signals to adversaries or authoritarians that the United States supports or at least does not care about human rights or their aggressive behavior elsewhere in the world.
Joel Willett, a former intelligence officer who worked at the National Security Council from 2014 to 2015, said he was concerned both by the descriptions of a president winging it, and the realization that the president’s behavior disturbs and frightens career civil servants.
“What a burden it must be to be stuck between your position of trust in the White House and another obligation you may feel to the American people to say something,” he said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Thursday or Friday.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, said the president speaks his mind and diverges from other presidents who follow protocol. Graham said he saw nothing distressing in the president’s July 25 call with Zelensky and said he expected it to be worse, partially given his own experience with Trump on the phone.
“If you take half of my phone calls with him, it wouldn’t read as cleanly and nicely,” he said, adding that the president sounded like a “normal person.”
This story is based on interviews with 12 former or current officials with knowledge of the president’s foreign calls. These officials had direct involvement in the calls, were briefed on them or read the transcripts afterward. All spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s private conversations with world leaders.
The first call Trump made that set off alarm bells came less than two weeks after his inauguration. On Jan. 28, Trump called Putin for what should have been a routine formality: accepting a foreign leader’s congratulations. Former White House officials described Trump as “obsequious” and “fawning,” but said he also rambled off into different topics without any clear point, while Putin appeared to stick to formal talking points for a first official exchange.
“He was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my people didn’t tell me you wanted to talk to me,’ ” said one person with direct knowledge of the call.
Trump has been consistently cozy with authoritarian leaders, sparking anxiety among aides about the solicitous tones he struck with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin.
“We couldn’t figure out early on why he was being so nice to Russia,” one former senior administration official said. H.R. McMaster, the president’s then-national security adviser, launched an internal campaign to get Trump to be more skeptical of the Russians. Officials expressed surprise in both of his early Putin calls at why he was so friendly.
In another call, in April 2017, Trump told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had overseen a brutal campaign that has resulted in the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers, that he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Trump’s personal goals seeped into calls. He pestered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for help in recommending him for a Nobel Prize, according to an official familiar with the call.
“People who could do things for him — he was nice to,” said one former security official. “Leaders with trade deficits, strong female leaders, members of NATO — those tended to go badly.”
Aides bristled at the dismissive way he sometimes addressed longtime U.S. allies, especially women.
In a summer 2018 call with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump harangued the British leader about her country’s contribution to NATO. He then disputed her intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin’s government had orchestrated the attempted murder and poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.
“Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning,” said one person briefed on the call. “A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it’s highly likely and him saying he’s not sure.”
Trump would sometimes make commitments to foreign leaders that flew in the face of U.S. policy and international agreements, as when he told a Saudi royal that he would support their country’s entry into the G-7.
“The G-7 is supposed to be the allies with whom we share the most common values and the deepest commitment to upholding the rules-based order,” the former official said.
Russia was kicked out of the group in 2014 for violating international law when it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Trump has publicly advocated for Russia to be allowed back in. Saudi Arabia, which oppresses women and has a record of human rights abuses, wasn’t a fit candidate for membership, the former official said.
Saudi Arabia was not admitted to the group.
Calls with foreign leaders have often been highly orchestrated events in past administrations.
“When I was at the White House, there was a very deliberative process of the president absorbing information from people who had deep substantive knowledge of the countries and relationships with these leaders. Preparation for these calls was taken very seriously,” Willett said. “It appears to be freestyle and ad-libbed now.”
Trump has rejected much of the protocol and preparation associated with foreign calls, even as his national security team tried to establish goals for each conversation.
Instead, Trump often sought to use calls as a way to befriend whoever he was talking to, one current senior administration official said, defending the president. “So he might say something that sounds terrible to the outside, but in his mind, he’s trying to build a relationship with that person and sees flattery as the way to do it.”
The president resisted long briefings before calls or reading in preparation, several former officials said. McMaster, who preferred providing the president with information he could use to make decisions, resigned himself to giving Trump small notecards with bulleted highlights and talking points.
“You had two to three minutes max,” said one former senior administration official. “And then he was still usually going to say whatever he wanted to say.”
As a result, staff fretted that Trump came across ill-informed in some calls, and even oafish. In a conversation with China’s Xi, Trump repeated numerous times how much he liked a kind of chocolate cake, one former official said. The president publicly described the dessert the two had in April 2017 when Trump and Xi met at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort as “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen.”
Trump preferred to make calls from the residence, which frustrated some NSC staff and West Wing aides who wanted to be on hand to give the president real-time advice. If he held the call in the Oval Office, aides would gather around the desk and pass him notes to try to keep the calls on point. On a few occasions, then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly muted the call to try to get the president back on track, two officials said.
Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer and critic, said the calls fit Trump’s style as a business leader.
“When he had to get on calls with investors on a publicly traded company, they had to worry that he would break securities laws and lie about the company’s profits,” O’Brien said. “When he would go and meet with regulators with the casino control commission, his lawyers were always worried under oath, in a public setting, that he would say something that would be legally damaging.”
Though calls with foreign leaders are routinely planned in advance, Trump a few times called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron unannounced, as if they were friends, a former administration official said.
After some early summaries of Trump calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia leaked to the press in 2017, the White House tightened restrictions on who could access the transcripts and kept better track of who had custody of copies. For example, Vice President Pence still received a courtesy copy of any foreign-leader call, but his staff now had to sign off when they transported it to his office and also sign off when they returned or destroyed the document.
Some former officials said that over time staff became used to the oddity of some calls even if they still found them troubling.
“People had gotten really numb to him blurting out something he shouldn’t have,” one former national security staffer remarked.
But officials who had served in the White House through the end of 2018 were still shocked by the whistleblower complaint about the effort to “lock down” records of Trump’s July 25 call. The complaint said White House officials ordered the transcript moved into a highly secure computer system, known as NICE, which is normally reserved only for information about the most sensitive code-word-level intelligence programs.
“Unheard of,” said one former official who handled foreign calls. “That just blew me away.”