“The secret counsels of princes,” said Montaigne, “are a troublesome burden to such as have only to execute them.” In the last few days, many a pundit must have pondered this insight while reading through the leaked transcripts of President Trump’s phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia. Aside from the predictable highlights – Trump’s rambling, his use of first names when addressing heads of state, his weak grasp of policy details – the texts leaked to the Washington Post represent an unprecedented breach of White House confidentiality and should be cause for general concern. Trump’s feuding staff have leaked voluminously since his first day in office, but the disclosure of such sensitive information marks a dangerous new low in terms of indiscretion.
The transcripts show Trump struggling to maintain a façade of control while betraying indecision and ignorance of key facts at almost every turn. His forced geniality does nothing to help him bargain effectively with seasoned politicians who know details that he seems constitutionally unable to grasp. In his conversation with President Enrique Peña Nieto, for instance, Trump admits that the wall is more of a political gesture than a practical policy. After some meandering thoughts about the wall, he says: “this is the least important thing that we are talking about” but “politically this might be the most important [to] talk about.”
Trump’s brusque, indiscreet and hectoring manner is evident throughout both conversations and it suggests a temperament that is incapable of diplomacy.
He tells Peña Nieto that “no one got people in their rallies as big as I did”; that he won New Hampshire because it is a “drug-infested den”; that drug lords are “knocking the hell out of our country” and that the US can help Mexico deal with its own “pretty tough hombres” “big-league.” After fruitlessly threatening Peña Nieto with US imposed tariffs – which would, ultimately, harm US consumers more than Mexico – Trump asks him not to say that Mexico won’t pay for the wall – even if that is true – because: “The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”
The conversation with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull reveals an even deeper level of ineptitude. As Turnbull tries to explain the details of the existing refugee agreement, the nominal leader of the free world responds: “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country.” Trump refers to the agreement as “stupid”, ‘’disgusting” and “horrible” and worries that it will “make me look terrible”or that he will “get killed on this thing.” When Turnbull explains that it is, in fact, arguably consistent with the then-recent travel ban, Trump grudgingly agrees to toe the line, but then complains that honouring US commitments “shows me to be a dope.” He adds: “I am not like this but, if I have to do it, I will do it but I do not like this at all.” Not once does Trump speak like a head of state; his primary concern, at all times, seems to be his personal brand and how it might be affected by concessions that may need to be made in the national interest.
With growing crises on multiple fronts, the Trump administration can only hope that General John Kelly can bring a semblance of order to a chaotic White House. Reading through the transcripts published in the Washington Post it is clear that the management of the President himself may well be the General’s most difficult challenge, and one that will likely require the tact of Talleyrand and the tenacity of Sisyphus.