President Trump and some aides were furious on Wednesday after the leak of sensitive notes for briefing the president before a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to aides and a close associate.
The leak appeared designed to embarrass Trump for congratulating rather than confronting Putin — contrary to the notes’ recommendation.
“If this story is accurate, that means someone leaked the president’s briefing papers,” said a senior White House official not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “Leaking such information is a fireable offense and likely illegal.”
Trump spoke with Putin on Tuesday and was criticized afterward, including by Republican lawmakers, for congratulating the Russian leader on his reelection Sunday. The president did so despite widespread outrage, including among other administration officials, that Putin’s government has subverted democracy in Russia, continues to try to disrupt U.S. elections, is committing atrocities in Syria and recently carried out an assassination attempt in Britain using a military-grade nerve agent.
The Washington Post reported late Tuesday, citing unnamed officials, that Trump ignored a warning in his briefing materials, written in capital letters, that said “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” It is unclear whether the president saw the material, sources said.
Leaking such materials is an extraordinary step, given the level of sensitivity in contacts between the president and a foreign leader, especially a geopolitical rival. The disclosure about the Putin call, however, is especially fraught, underscoring Trump’s much-criticized insistence on warm relations with Putin despite national security concerns, as well as the president’s own political and legal vulnerability amid a special counsel’s probe of Russia’s election interference.
Significantly, the leak also suggests that dismay with Trump’s stance extends to his inner circle.
Trump faced similar, but far less consequential embarrassments early in his term after the leak of transcripts of his confrontational calls with two allies, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Those leaks seemed intended to portray Trump as naïve and undiplomatic. One person who speaks regularly with White House officials said the most recent leak seemed particularly geared toward “infantilizing” Trump, who has ignored numerous suggestions that he rebuke Putin.
“He doesn’t like it,” the person said of Trump. “He doesn’t like to be herded. The people that try to herd Trump don’t do well.”
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly also is said to be infuriated — “on a warpath,” according to the person in close contact with national security officials. The leak further undercuts Kelly, who has prided himself on bringing more order to the White House since arriving last summer, and on ensuring that Trump has high-quality briefing material.
“Trump’s mad enough and Kelly’s embarrassed to some extent that this is happening,” the person said. “And I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a scalp over this.”
People with knowledge of how the White House operates said the number of people who see Trump’s briefing materials is relatively small, perhaps 12 to 20 people, depending on the topic. They cautioned, however, that a wider circle could have learned that information secondhand.
Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and Obama administration national security advisor, said that the leak was just one problem, and that the call itself was concerning. He cited the fact that the president reportedly made the call from the White House residential quarters rather than the Oval Office, where more advisors can be on hand; that Trump’s preparation with national security advisor H.R. McMaster was apparently done over the phone; and that the written material consisted of handwritten notecards.
“It really paints a picture of sloppiness, of lack of care, a lack of precision on the part of the president and on the part of the staff who went along with this,” Price said.
Normally, such calls would involve extensive preparation, with up-to-date intelligence insights, mounds of written materials and precise talking points discussed with the president in person, he said.
“The fact that it was leaked suggests that there is grave concern on the part of White House insiders about this offer of congratulations and what it means about the relationship between President Trump and President Putin,” Price added.
The senior White House official restricted his anger to the leaker, given the president’s need for confidentiality. “For him to be unable to get candid advice for fear of leaking is a real problem for government,” the official said.
Trump has ignored advice from many advisors to be more confrontational with Putin, believing he can better influence the Russian president through personal rapport. Administration policies, including sanctions announced last week, are more confrontational than the president’s rhetoric would imply. And some advisors contend that the administration is pushing back against Russia’s aggression with behind-the-scenes actions, particularly in Syria.
Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday afternoon to respond to the controversy over the call: “The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Trump wrote that Putin could be helpful in solving problems related to North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, Islamic State, Iran and “even the coming Arms Race.” He once again assailed his predecessors for failing to get along with Russia, saying that President George W. Bush lacked the “smarts” while Presidents Clinton and Obama “didn’t have the energy or chemistry.”
Trump also noted that Obama congratulated Putin after the Russian’s 2012 election, which at the time elicited some criticism. Yet the circumstances were different in several respects. Russia had yet to annex Crimea and further intervene in Ukraine, a U.S. ally, commit alleged atrocities in Syria and seek to disrupt U.S. elections.
Trump’s reluctance this week to criticize Russia’s widely disparaged election fits with a general shift in his foreign policy, away from America’s longstanding efforts to promote democracy in other countries.
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday.
Many in the national security community want a tougher public approach from Trump, however, and think that Putin, a canny operative who built his reputation at the KGB, has gotten the better of the relationship. The issue is particularly sensitive for Trump, who has been furious with U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Russia interfered on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the investigations into whether his campaign colluded.
“An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said of Putin on Tuesday, “Calling him wouldn’t have been high on my list.” The assistant Republican leader, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said, “I haven’t heard anybody in the legislative branch say they think it’s a great idea,” and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said simply, "I wouldn't have a conversation with a criminal."
In contrast to the White House, the State Department was critical of the Russian election, citing numerous efforts by Putin to silence opposition and repress political freedoms.
Endorsing a preliminary report by election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the election was clearly neither free nor fair, a description the White House refused to make.
“We saw on the news over the weekend that some people were paid to turn out to vote,” Nauert said during a briefing on Tuesday, hours after Sanders sidestepped the issue at the White House. “We’ve seen that opposition leaders have been intimidated, jailed and other things of the sort.”
Nauert, however, defended Trump’s call to Putin as standard protocol and suggested he might have been more critical of the Russian leader in private than was revealed publicly, although there is no evidence of that. It was Trump himself who described the call to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, after it had been disclosed by the Kremlin.
“Whether folks like it or not, we have a relationship with the Russian government,” Nauert added. “That is just a part of the world. That is just simply a reality. That does not mean that we agree with them on everything.”
Staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.