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White House release of Ukraine call threatens new precedent

Old fashioned telephone
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump’s decision to release the contents of his July call with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky has set a precedent his administration will have trouble containing.

Why it matters: Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state to George W. Bush, tells Axios that administrations try to keep presidential calls with foreign leaders confidential because "you want to preserve the ability to work with these people and you don’t want to embarrass them."

  • Still, Burns thinks Trump’s calls with foreign leaders should be examined in an impeachment inquiry “because that constitutional imperative supersedes confidentiality with foreign leaders.”
  • "Other world leaders are going to be extremely cautious in their conversations with him," Burns adds. "You'll never know if you’re going to find those conversations on the front page of the New York Times, or on Axios."

The impact: The Wall Street Journal reported that in addition to Trump’s call with Zelensky, his conversations with Russian and Saudi Arabian leaders were also hidden on the secret national security system "now central to the impeachment probe.”

  • The Kremlin is warning against releasing transcripts of Trump’s calls with Vladimir Putin.
  • But House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he will push for memos from Trump's calls with other world leaders, including Putin.

Gérard Araud, who was the French ambassador to the U.S. until April, says seasoned world leaders were already far more cautious in their phone calls with Trump than Zelensky, who embarrassingly saw his criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and flattery of Trump exposed.

  • “When [French President Emmanuel] Macron was talking, he was talking about a precise topic," Araud says. "I have never had a paper where he was criticizing another head of state. He was not playing this game. Even if Trump was trying to, he was not."
  • “It’s a small club,” Araud adds, noting that world leaders must worry not only about leaks, but also about what their foreign counterparts will tell one another.

Meanwhile, Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's former national security adviser, said in an interview Friday with Axios' Margaret Talev that there's a case for Congress to have access to more transcripts from Trump's conversations with foreign leaders.

  • "In normal times, there is utility in the communications between foreign leaders having a measure of confidentiality; these are not normal times," Rice said.
  • "I care more about what we don't yet know about what the president of the United States has done behind closed doors that run counter to U.S. national interests."