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There have been questions among the public about Donald Trump's foreign policy since the very beginning. He has one move, and that's threats, unless he's dealing with someone of the likes of Russia, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, where he seems to just give them whatever they want.
Everyone has sat up and listened, though, after the details of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were released thanks to a whistleblower's complaint. He seemed to be holding up U.S. aid unless Ukraine would investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a current 2020 candidate, and his son Hunter. This was enough for House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry.
But the administration's officials and aides have been worried about his calls with foreign leaders since the beginning.
There was his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Trump's first calls with another head of state. He told the man whose country interfered with the U.S. election that he was a great leader. He promised Saudi officials he'd help them enter the G-7, the president of Peru that he would send them a C-130 military cargo plane overnight, and asked a KGB officer for help in creating a relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"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 a former White House official.
"Phone calls that were embarrassing, huge mistakes he made, months and months of work that were upended by one impulsive tweet."
Former officials join Trump's critics in the belief Trump's calls with foreign leaders has created unnecessary tensions with allies and sent adversaries worrisome signals that the United States is unconcerned about human rights or aggressive behavior.
What a burden it must be to be stuck between your position of trust in the White House and the obligation you may feel to the American people to say something," said former intelligence officer Joel Willett, who worked at the National Security Council under the Obama administration of his concern for Trump's behavior that upset civil servants.
Longtime Trump ally Senate Foreign Relations Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) describes Trump as a president who speaks his mind and doesn't follow protocol but saw nothing disturbing in Trump's July call with Zelensky. He believes it was a cleaner and nicer call than his own with Trump and that the president sounded like a "normal person."
A person with direct knowledge of Trump's first call to Putin on January 28, 2017, said of the president, "He was like, 'Oh my gosh, my people didn't tell me you wanted to talk to me.' " Trump was described by former officials as "obsequious" and "fawning," and it was said he rambled off into different topics.
"We couldn't figure out early on why he was being so nice to Russia," said a former senior administration official.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was behind a campaign that resulted in the unlawful killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers. Trump told him he was doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem."
One former security official reports he was big on "people who could do things for him," while "leaders with trade deficits, strong female leaders, members of NATO — those tended to go badly." He was after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to recommend him for a Nobel Prize, according to an official who is familiar with the call.
Aides feel he is especially harsh with female leaders, even allies. He gave Prime Minister Theresa May a hard time in a summer 2018 call regarding participation in NATO and disputed the conclusion of her intelligence community that Russia was behind the murder and poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
"Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning," said a person who was briefed on the May call. "A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it's highly likely and him saying he's not sure."
With G-7, he not only advocated for Russia to be allowed back in after they were kicked out for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea, but also advocated for Saudi Arabia to be included, a country that opposes women and is known for human rights abuses.
"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," said Willett. "It appears to be freestyle and ad-libbed now."
A current senior administration official defended Trump, explaining "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."
Trump is also known to resist long briefings or reading in preparation for a call. "You had two to three minutes max," said a former administration official. "And then he was still usually going to say whatever he wanted to say."
This led everyone to worry he would come across as ill-informed or unintelligent. In a call with China's leader Xi Jinping, Trump mentioned several times how much he liked a particular kind of chocolate cake. He then publicly mentioned the cake he and Xi shared when they met at Mar-a-Lago as "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen."
It also presented trouble that Trump prefers to make these calls from the residence instead of the Oval Office. This prevented aides from having the opportunity to pass him notes of things to address on the calls. Former Chief of staff John Kelly was known to mute calls to try to get Trump back on track.
Trump biographer Tim O'Brian compares the calls to his former life 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," he 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."
Worrisome to some former officials is that over time the staff became used to Trump's bizarre calls, even if they found them troubling. "People had gotten really numb to him blurting out something he shouldn't have," said a former national security staff member.
Yet still, officials who were in the White House through the end of 2018 were still astonished by the whistleblower's complaint at current officials' attempts to "lock down" records of the Zelensky call. The complaint said the transcript was moved into a secure computer system that is normally reserved for knowledge about the very sensitive code-word-level intelligence programs.
"Unheard of," said a former official who handled foreign calls. "That just blew me away."
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