Friday, August 4, 2017

A Leak That Really Hurts

By Elliot Kaufman
Thursday, August 03, 2017

This morning, the Washington Post published leaked transcripts of President Trump’s January phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia. At the time of the calls, many of their key details were leaked to the Post, which reported on them extensively. So why release the full transcripts now?

One reason is that they show Trump saying all sorts of embarrassing things. He calls New Hampshire a “drug-infested den.” He acknowledges that his promise to get Mexico to pay for a border wall has left him cornered, and he describes the wall as, in actuality, “the least important thing that we are talking about.” It is worth noting that Trump did not threaten to send troops to Mexico, as had been previously reported. But he did tell President Enrique Pena Nieto that America was “willing to help” Mexico fight the “pretty tough hombres” who run its powerful drug cartels.

This could all have been reported in a regular article. Publishing full transcripts of phone calls including the comments of foreign leaders, however, is bad for the country. They should not have been leaked — that is the first, most egregious problem — and they should not have been published. Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council during President Obama’s second term, wrote on Twitter that, “I would’ve lost my mind if transcripts of Obama’s calls to foreign leaders leaked.” And he would have been well within his rights to do so.

Presidents need to be able to converse openly, honestly, and bluntly with foreign leaders. They sometimes need to reveal things that they cannot say publicly. This allows them to develop both personal and working relationships. Though it can be unpleasant to contemplate, politicians need this kind of flexibility to move past public pronouncements and get down to their nations’ real interests.

Neither Trump nor his foreign counterparts can have such flexibility in their mutual dealings if they fear that their remarks will be leaked to the press and then to the public.

For example, the Post’s transcript shows that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia told President Trump that he thinks the Germans made a huge mistake in letting in so many refugees. Turnbull even linked that decision to the Brexit vote in Britain. He’ll now have to answer for that comment at home and whenever he next meets with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Similarly, the Post quotes President Peña Nieto musing about “creative ways” to pay for Trump’s border wall. In public, Nieto’s position is far more intransigent, but it is a good thing that he was able to level with our president and explain the constraints of his own political situation. In the future, Turnbull, Nieto, and every other foreign leader will think twice before opening up.

There is also another risk. Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, speculated on Twitter that President Trump may now “refuse notetakers at other major phone calls/meetings.” This would not be unreasonable of him. After all, he can only tolerate so many leaks that damage his ability to do his job before he says enough is enough.

But this sort of secrecy is unhelpful. The president is busy and may have trouble remembering everything that was said on a given call. Full transcripts are also extremely useful for transmitting key information to staff who were not on the call. Summaries, by definition, are narratives. They are subjective and inevitably biased accounts of what happened, as the summarizer’s own preconceptions influence his interpretation of events. The only way to get around this sort of problem, which presents itself in daily life but takes on unusual importance in the White House, is to access the bare facts: the transcript.

It is unclear why these transcripts were leaked. The calls occurred in January, after all, and are really no longer relevant. Perhaps an operative wants to undermine General Kelly, who was having a generally successful and well-ordered first week as the president’s chief of staff. It does not ultimately matter. This leak will have one overriding effect: It will further restrict the White House’s ability to receive, convey, and retain valuable information. However enticing it may be to read and laugh about each of President Trump’s tics and word choices, it is not worth damaging the U.S. government.

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