The empire strikes back: Why Trump's private talks with foreign leaders were leaked

The swamp is finding ways to mire the new president in controversy.

A pair of leaks about Donald Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders is extraordinary, because these are among the most closely held secrets in government. The information was furnished to the Washington Post and the AP in a clear effort to embarrass the president. And it worked.

Putting aside for a moment what Trump said to the leaders of Australia and Mexico, how can any president function if he can’t hold confidential conversations with his counterparts on the world stage?

These stories were about the bureaucracy striking back. One or more people, in either the State Department or the White House, wanted to damage Trump by portraying him as a rampaging bull breaking the diplomatic china. And this was done by selectively providing excerpts of the private calls. We don’t know much about the tone or the context.

They’re hot news stories, of course, but the motivation of the leakers is pretty transparent.

Now it’s not that unusual for an administration to provide authorized leaks about a president’s encounters with foreign leaders to paint him in a positive light. But I can’t recall another case in which unnamed sources tried to undermine a president by putting out such specifics.

Maybe that’s why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told employees yesterday that they need to put aside their personal political beliefs even if they wanted a different outcome in the election. And why the president, when he wasn’t praying for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings, told the National Prayer Breakfast:

“When you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it. Just don't worry about it. They're tough. We have to be tough. It's time we we're going to be a little tough, folks. We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually.”

In one case, the Post reported:

“President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refu¬gee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.

“At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — and that ‘this was the worst call by far.’…Trump, who one day earlier had signed an executive order temporarily barring the admission of refugees, complained that he was ‘going to get killed’ politically and accused Australia of seeking to export the ‘next Boston bombers.’”

In the other, the AP actually obtained a document:

“President Donald Trump warned in a phone call with his Mexican counterpart that he was ready to send U.S. troops to stop ‘bad hombres down there’ unless the Mexican military does more to control them, according to an excerpt of a transcript of the conversation obtained by The Associated Press…

“The excerpt offers a rare and striking look at how the new president is conducting diplomacy behind closed doors. Trump's remarks suggest he is using the same tough and blunt talk with world leaders that he used to rally crowds on the campaign trail.”

Now both accounts are jarring. And White House officials have scrambled to provide context. One source told CNN, for instance, that Trump was a bit fatigued by the time he got to the call with Turnbull. And the AP quoted a White House official in a followup piece as saying Trump’s remarks about sending troops to Mexico was “lighthearted.”

That is one weakness of such stories, that we don’t know what tone was taken.

But the Australia issue is serious. Trump tweeted Wednesday night: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Trump is also getting flak from the unnamed sources at the Pentagon as well in the wake of the raid in Yemen, first planned by the Obama administration, that killed a Navy SEAL:

“U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”

We need to fully investigate what happened, of course, but it’s rather remarkable that military officials are using the press to second-guess the commander-in-chief.

All this underscores the fact that Trump, more so than most new presidents, has to deal with hostile elements within the government—a situation that can prompt a White House to become more secretive. The challenge for Tillerson, Jim Mattis and other new Cabinet chiefs will be to instill a sense of loyalty among their troops.