In what is sure to provoke the next firestorm of protests against Donald Trump, the White House has stopped the practice of publishing public summaries, also known as readouts, of President Trump’s phone calls with world leaders, CNN reported citing “two sources with knowledge of the situation”, bringing an end to a common exercise used for many years by the White House. It’s unclear if the suspension is temporary or permanent, CNN added.
Traditionally, official descriptions of the President’s calls with foreign leaders , which tends to be rather brief usually just a few lines and rarely divulge the details of what was said, offer administrations the chance to characterize in their own terms how diplomacy is being conducted at the highest levels.
While news is rarely contained in the rote, often dry descriptions, readouts have a different purpose according to CNN’s Sam Vinograd:
- they are an important mechanism for the White House to officially share its readout/ position/ reaction.
- failing to publish these readouts means other countries control the narrative
- failing to publish these readouts also means that bits and pieces of readouts will leak out
According to CNN, Trump has had at least two calls with other leaders in the last two weeks, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House confirmed that the calls took place after they were reported by foreign media, but declined to elaborate on what was said and there has so far been no readout.
In May, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to convince Trump to remain in the Iran nuclear deal during a phone call with Trump. The White House issued a terse, two-sentence readout after the call highlighting Trump and Macron’s “shared commitment to peace and stability in the Middle East,” while declining to offer any details.
The White House has not published a readout of a call between Trump and a world leader since mid-June when he called to congratulate the Hungarian prime minister on his re-election victory.
“The two leaders further pledged to keep United States-Hungary relations strong,” the readout at the time noted.
Michael Allen, who was a member of the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, said that by halting the practice of issuing readouts, the White House loses “the action forcing event of an announced phone call.”
“I think they lose the public diplomacy aspect of a presidential phone call,” Allen added.
At the start of his presidency, Trump incited a media furore when the transcripts of several of his calls – which differed significantly from the readout – were leaked to the press.
Trump was incensed last August when The Washington Post published transcripts of his tense phone calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico. He railed about the leak to aides for weeks, insisting that fewer people be in the room during the calls going forward.
He was similarly infuriated after it quickly leaked this spring that he had been directly instructed by his national security advisers in briefing materials not to congratulate Putin on his recent election victory during their call. As reported by the Post, he did.
The leak reinforced Trump’s long-held belief there are individuals inside his administration — especially in the national security realm — who are working to undermine him, sources close to the President told CNN at the time.
In a less dramatic development, after speaking with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in April 2017, the two sides offered vastly different accounts of what was discussed.
“President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke today. The two leaders discussed the dairy trade in Wisconsin, New York State, and various other places. It was a very amicable call,” the White House’s version read.
Meanwhile, Canada’s readout was more descriptive: “The prime minister and the President reaffirmed the importance of the mutually beneficial Canada-US trade relationship,” Canada’s readout said. “On the issue of softwood lumber, the prime minister refuted the baseless allegations by the US Department of Commerce and the decision to impose unfair duties.”
Trump has also been known to make calls to foreign leaders from the residence of the White House during what has been dubbed by aides as “executive time.”
Before he was fired this spring, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster often joined Trump in residence for his calls. His successor John Bolton is regularly present during his calls with leaders, a White House official tells CNN.
But the reason why Trump is about to feel a full court press by the media is that the decision to halt the readouts comes amid questions about what was said during Trump’s one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
If confirmed, this will be seen as yet another example of Trump seeking to bypass traditional media channels at the expense of transparency and openness, unless of course Trump decides to provide the readouts using his Twitter account, employing his own unique narrative.
Predictably, the hot takes have already started flooding in:
If this White House is giving up on readouts permanently (which I sorta doubt), it would be unilateral disarmament in the fight with a foreign government to shape the news coverage of a presidential call (at least until a leak or a Trump tweet). Example follows.
— Olivier Knox (@OKnox) July 24, 2018
Keep in mind, other governments will continue to release readouts and be able to control the narrative. https://t.co/eGlAzP01JV
— Yashar Ali ? (@yashar) July 24, 2018
Weird. Still most other leaders (except, importantly, Xi, Putin, Kim) would likely issue public readout of call with US president. https://t.co/jur9MHCRgf
— David Akin ?? (@davidakin) July 24, 2018
The summaries were already very brief and generally uninformative.
But this means American journalists will need to rely on foreign readouts, rather than information from the U.S. government, and even more so on the anonymous sources that the president loathes. https://t.co/Fjm6hw1wSC
— Katie Watson (@kathrynw5) July 24, 2018
It’s cool. I’ll just get the readout from….whatever dictator w a comms team hits “send” first. ? https://t.co/eyOFCTDHQM
— Patrick Tucker (@DefTechPat) July 24, 2018
Now the only info on these calls that the press and public will have to draw from will be readouts from foreign governments, complete with their spin and biases. So dumb. https://t.co/PIk0ua9kpx
— Lachlan Markay (@lachlan) July 24, 2018
Read on ZH