Sep 29, 2019

White House release of Ukraine call threatens new precedent

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."

Go deeper

Russia says White House must ask for consent to release Trump-Putin phone calls

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The Russian government said Monday that the White House must ask for consent to publish transcripts of phone calls between President Trump and Vladimir Putin because such releases are "not normal diplomatic practice," Reuters reports.

Why it matters: The White House's release of a summary of Trump's phone call with the president of Ukraine may have set a dangerous new precedent now that the conversation is at the center of an impeachment inquiry. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Sunday that Democrats will try to get the transcripts of the president's calls with other world leaders, especially in light of reports that Trump's calls with Putin and Saudi Arabian leaders were also stored on a secret national security system.

Go deeper: The new precedent set by White House's release of Ukraine call

Keep ReadingArrowSep 30, 2019

McMaster wasn't aware of White House's foreign call "lockdowns"

H.R. McMaster. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Three former administration officials tell Axios that former national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not authorize and was not aware of the "locking down" of transcripts of conversations between President Trump and foreign leaders that were politically damaging but didn't pose national security risks.

Why it matters: Congressional investigators want to learn how, when and at whose direction transcripts were moved out of the typical computer system and into a classified system meant for highly sensitive security matters.

Go deeperArrowOct 13, 2019

Judge orders White House to preserve records of Trump's calls with foreign leaders

Photo: Tom Brenner/Washington Post/Getty Images

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered the White House on Thursday to preserve records of President Trump’s communications with foreign leaders, including those with Ukraine's president that have spurred an impeachment inquiry in the House, according to Politico.

Why it matters: Jackson's order seems to address concerns outlined in a whistleblower complaint that the White House has used procedures reserved for highly sensitive information to limit access to potentially damaging conversations between Trump and foreign leaders. CNN has reported that officials took steps to restrict access to Trump's calls with Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Go deeperArrowOct 6, 2019