A bad leak in many ways. Confidentiality breeds candor, and you want the president to be candid when talking to foreign leaders. If he has to worry about his conversations leaking, he won’t be. Conceivably there’s a pressing national security concern that might override that concern — if, say, the worst suspicions of hardcore anti-Trumpers were true and he were colluding with the Kremlin to undermine American interests, you might justify leaking a transcript in that case. But there’s nothing like that in the WaPo piece. The most embarrassing part, it seems, is Trump asking the president of Mexico to stop saying publicly that his country won’t pay for the wall, as that creates a political problem for him here. This is, in other words, a leak designed purely to humiliate him and stoke his mistrust, not to alert the public about any alarming malfeasance. No wonder Trump is paranoid about the people surrounding him in the West Wing.
Maybe worst of all, he might conclude from this that his new disciplinarian chief of staff, John Kelly, can’t solve one of the White House’s core problems. You would think a natsec leaker would take that into account. If you’re a Trump skeptic who’s pleased to see Kelly trying to professionalize the operation, why the hell would you undermine him by leaking transcripts of phone calls that happened six months ago and that aren’t very scandalous? Here’s Trump on the call with Enrique Pena-Nieto:
The only thing I will ask you though is on the wall, you and I both have a political problem. 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. But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to. I have been talking about it for a two year period, and the reason I say they are going to pay for the wall is because Mexico has made a fortune out of the stupidity of U.S. trade representatives. They are beating us at trade and they are beating us at the border, and they are killing us with drugs. Now I know you are not involved with that, but regardless of who is making all the money, billions and billions and billions – some people say more – is being made on drug trafficking that is coming through Mexico. Some people say that the business of drug trafficking is bigger than the business of taking our factory jobs. So what I would like to recommend is – if we are going to have continued dialogue – we will work out the wall. They are going to say, “who is going to pay for the wall, Mr. President?” to both of us, and we should both say, “we will work it out.” It will work out in the formula somehow. As opposed to you saying, “we will not pay” and me saying, “we will not pay.”
Because you and I are both at a point now where we are both saying we are not to pay for the wall. From a political standpoint, that is what we will say. We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that. I am willing to say that we will work it out, but that means it will come out in the wash and that is okay. But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important talk about. But in terms of dollars – or pesos – it is the least important thing. I know how to build very inexpensively, so it will be much lower than these numbers I am being presented with, and it will be a better wall and it will look nice. And it will do the job.
Trump doesn’t even concede that Mexico won’t pay for the wall. The most damning thing he says is the bit about how the wall is the “least important thing that we are talking about” but politically the most important. That implies that he sees the wall less as an essential deterrent to illegal immigration than an essential component of his strongman persona — which it is, of course. He can tolerate an arrangement in which Mexico doesn’t pay for it, or all of it. But telling the press that they won’t? Nuh uh. That’s bad for his image.
He also told Pena-Nieto regarding illegal drugs coming into the U.S. from Mexico, “I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den.” Whether that description is accurate or not, he, er, did not win New Hampshire last year. Meanwhile, a noteworthy bit from his contentious call with Malcolm Turnbull in which they discuss whether Trump will honor the deal made by Obama to accept a number of refugees from Australia:
Malcom [sic], why is this so important? I do not understand. This is going to kill me. 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…
You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it.
I have no choice to say that about it. Malcom [sic], I am going to say that I have no choice but to honor my predecessor’s deal. I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal that I would have never made. It is an embarrassment to the United States of America and you can say it just the way I said it. I will say it just that way. As far as I am concerned that is enough Malcom [sic]. I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.
If Trump had told Turnbull that he privately had no problem with accepting the refugees but had to put on a tough-guy facade for his base, that arguably might have been newsworthy enough to justify a limited leak. The president doesn’t believe in his own immigration policy! But he sounds here exactly like he did during the campaign. He doesn’t want the refugees, warning at one point that they could produce another pair of Boston bombers, but he agrees to accept them reluctantly to show that the U.S. will honor its commitments. The only “news” is that he did in fact have a pissy conversation with a close U.S. ally. Which we’ve known about for ages, even though Trump denied it on Twitter at the time.
Anyway. Who leaked? It’s tempting to assume that this came from the West Wing, as transcripts of presidential calls with world leaders are closely held, but upper-tier natsec and diplomatic officers surely had access to them too — and as David Frum notes, if the leaker had this, he/she has access to many other secrets. Given the turnover in the White House lately, there’s no shortage of disgruntled former employees who might have had a revenge motive to embarrass Trump. Reince and his allies? One of the NSC deputies purged by McMaster recently? A master betrayal by the Mooch? (Well, no, probably not him.) Or, as I suggested up top, is the real target here John Kelly? The more Trump is humiliated by leaks on Kelly’s watch, the more likely he is to decide that the new chief is ineffective and it’s time to go back to old-school Trump loyalists in the inner circle.