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Opinion: Trump’s leaked phone calls: Guilty pleasure, problematic precedent

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Mexico City in 2016.
(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)

It was everyone’s guilty pleasure in Washington on Thursday: poring over the transcripts of President Trump’s six-months-old telephone conversations with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Australia, posted with annotations on the Washington Post website.

Mother Jones was pushing it when it headlined its report “Trump’s Calls with World Leaders Were Way More Bonkers Than Previously Reported.” But there were plenty of odd utterances.

My favorite was this comment to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto about Trump’s famous border wall: “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.” (Spanish?) There was also a line that reminded me of a Helen Reddy hit: “It is you and I against the world, Enrique, do not forget.”

The transcripts also show that Trump was concerned about protecting his image. Again, referring to the wall and his campaign promise to make Mexico pay for it, he told Peña Nieto: “This is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important.”

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In complaining to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about a commitment Barack Obama had made to welcome 1,250 refugees to the United States, Trump said: “This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country.”

It was hard to argue that the transcripts revealed state secrets or endangered the national security. Reporting at the time indicated that Trump’s exchanges with the two leaders had been less than harmonious. Yet there was perhaps surprisingly bipartisan criticism Thursday of the leakers who supplied the transcripts to the Post, focused less on the details of the conversations than on the precedent.

Ned Price, who served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Obama administration, told The Hill: “This is beyond the pale and will have a chilling effect going forward on the ability of the commander in chief to have candid discussions with his counterparts.” On Twitter, Tommy Vietor, who was spokesman for the NSC under Obama, said, “I would’ve lost my mind if transcripts of Obama’s calls to foreign leaders leaked.”

Finally, writing in the Atlantic, David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, called the leak of the transcripts “unprecedented, shocking, and dangerous.” He added: “It is vitally important that a president be able to speak confidentially — and perhaps even more important that foreign leaders understand that they can reply in confidence.”

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Frum suggested that the leak originated with “senior national security professionals” who regard Trump as “something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset.” But he warned that the “the less Trump can trust the regularly constituted government, the more justified he will feel in working irregularly.”

Finally, the leak may have the effect of emboldening opponents of career professionals who are trying to moderate Trump’s unruly impulses. Hours after the Post posted the transcripts, Americans for Limited Government, a conservative group committed to “rolling back the tyranny of the administrative state,” called for Trump to fire national security advisor H.R. McMaster because of the leak. McMaster was already under attack from some Trump loyalists for dismissing several aides associated with his predecessor, Michael Flynn.

Speaking of Trump appointees whose job security has been called into question, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions is expected to speak publicly Friday (along with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats) about leaks of classified information. The president’s phone calls may get a mention.

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