Former senior members of the White House National Security Council say they are shocked at what they call the rare leak of full transcripts of phone calls between President Donald Trump and the leaders of Australia and Mexico, and are worried about the lasting effects it could have on American diplomacy.
The transcripts, published by The Washington Post, revealed that Trump engaged in candid, disjointed and often contentious discussions with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during the early days of his administration.
It is the latest in a torrent of embarrassing leaks of Trump’s private conversations with foreign leaders. Since becoming president, parts of Trump’s talks with the leaders of Russia, Britain, Germany and the Philippines also have been leaked to the media.
In fact, portions of Trump’s talks with Pena Nieto and Turnbull were leaked shortly after the calls took place in January. But the release of the complete transcripts represents an escalation, since those documents are highly restricted and accessible only to top officials, former NSC members say.
“It’s just such a high level of classification that you can’t easily forward something like this,” said Shamila Chaudhary, NSC director for Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2010-11. “It means someone went through a considerable amount of effort to either print it out and hand it to somebody or to print it out and scan it.”
Presidential phone calls with foreign leaders are traditionally coordinated with the help of the NSC, which is made up of several hundred national security specialists — mostly career service officers on detail from other agencies — who advise the president on foreign policy and often assist him with practical diplomatic functions.
Typically, a handful of presidential advisers and NSC senior directors sit with the president in the Oval Office during such a phone call. Another one or two NSC staff members transcribe the conversation from downstairs in the White House, in the Situation Room. A translator is also sometimes present, if necessary.
The transcripts are then reviewed and distributed to 10 to 20 top White House leaders, former officials estimated. If relevant, the transcripts also are shared with as many as 20 to 30 senior leaders at other agencies, such as the State Department, Defense Department or CIA.
“It’s a pretty restricted circulation,” Mark Feierstein, former NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, remembered. “Some key people in the White House get to see it, and then it might go to Cabinet members. But in the other departments, it’s very, very restricted.”
Even many former NSC staffers who are critical of Trump view the leaks as a major breach that could have lasting effects on U.S. diplomacy.
One former senior NSC official, speaking on background because of the sensitive nature of the topic, called the leaks “deeply concerning,” pointing out they could make foreign leaders more reluctant to speak their minds during future conversations.
“These are not really conversations that should be debated in a public space,” the former official said. “The president and other senior administration officials should be able to speak candidly and openly with their foreign counterparts.”
“It just really sets a bad precedent,” the former official added.
It’s also illegal to leak classified information, meaning that whoever disclosed the transcripts may not only be risking his or her job and security clearance but also facing prosecution.
“I think it’s an indication of the lack of respect Donald Trump’s staff has for him, and the concern, frankly, they have about how he conducts himself on the job,” Feierstein said.
“They’re worried we’ve got this unhinged president who’s damaging our relationship with other countries, who doesn’t do his job, who doesn’t prepare for phone calls,” he added.
The Trump administration condemned the leak and promised a sweeping, governmentwide crackdown on unauthorized disclosures.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday announced the Department of Justice had more than tripled the number of active leak investigations that were open at the end of the Obama administration.
Sessions: 'Culture of Leaking Must Stop'
“We are taking a stand,” Sessions said. “This culture of leaking must stop.”
But if they want to change the culture, they should start with the fierce infighting among different factions within the White House, Feierstein said.
“The White House is pretty much a den of leakers,” he said. “The Kushners leak. The Bannons leak. And they all leak about each other. That just didn’t happen in the Obama administration.”