What is striking, beyond the political bombshells and alleged high crimes, is the initial banality of the call.
On one side of the July conversation between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, there is fawning and flattery. “You are absolutely right, Mr. President. . . . Not only 100 percent but actually 1,000 percent. . . . Your skills and knowledge. . . . You are a great teacher for us.” The last time he was in New York, Zelensky says, “I stayed at the Trump Tower.”
Trump accepts the kowtowing as his due. “It’s very nice of you to say that,” he responds with noblesse oblige, noting several times that “we do a lot for Ukraine.”
They talk about Europe and Russia and Ukraine’s desire for more U.S. weapons. And it is then, at the top of the third page of the five-page rough transcript, that Trump introduces the subject that will dominate the rest of the exchange and provide its only substance.
“I would like you to do us a favor,” he says.
Presidential scholars and officials from previous White Houses said they could remember nothing like this conversation, unclassified and released by Trump on Wednesday to rebut charges that he in essence offered Zelensky continued U.S. support in exchange for dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“This is nothing like a conversation between Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger and a foreign leader,” said Ken Hughes of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, an expert on Nixon during the Vietnam War and Watergate.
“Nixon had very detailed knowledge when he spoke to foreign leaders. He could be subtle in negotiations and still get his point across,” Hughes said. But “when he wanted to dig up dirt on his political adversaries,” Nixon did it at home, he said.
Even President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose vulgarity and pressure tactics are well documented, “tended to be a cautious and careful communicator with world leaders and diplomats, not the gunslinger that he could be with Americans that he knew well,” said Kent Germany of the University of South Carolina. “He was not going to go rogue and be Lyndon Johnson with these other leaders.”
Jon Meacham, author of best-selling books about American history and a biography of President George H.W. Bush, described it as “more like an Oval Office bull session than a world leader calling a new world leader in a troubled region. It’s illuminating because it probably suggests how Trump talks to everybody.”
“In my experience with these kinds of documents, there might be one or two lines in a five- or six-page [transcript] that are tantalizing,” Meacham said. “This is five pages of nothing but.”
A former senior official in one modern White House who sat in on dozens of such calls noted that they are “a reflection of the president’s personality.”
“We have had very different presidents,” the former official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid becoming involved in the current political upheaval.
If Trump’s call with Zelensky brings to mind any previous presidential exchanges, they are ones that Trump himself has had.
One of the earliest minor scandals of Trump’s presidency was the leak of two telephone conversations with foreign counterparts — then-President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — during the first days of his presidency.
In both cases, Trump seemed concerned about how bad their policies might make him look. If he agreed to honor a deal made by his predecessor to accept more than 1,000 migrants who landed in Australia, “I look like a dope,” Trump fretted. “This is going to kill me,” he told Turnbull. “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people in the country. . . . It makes me look so bad, and I have only been here a week,” he said before abruptly hanging up on the Australian leader.
He bragged to Peña Nieto about his electoral victory, saying that “no one got the people in the rallies as big as I did.” Mexico, he said, had been “knocking the hell out of us” by allowing drug lords to cross the border.
“I have been saying I wanted to tax people that treated us unfairly at the border, and Mexico is treating us unfairly,” Trump said.
In the transcript of an April 2017 call, leaked in the Philippines, Trump said he had called to congratulate President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government was charged with gunning down suspected drug users and dealers in the streets, for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
When Duterte raised the problem of North Korea, Trump asked if he thought Kim Jong Un was unstable. “He is not stable,” Duterte replied. “He keeps on smiling when he explodes a rocket.”
“Well, he has got the powder, [sic] but he doesn’t have the delivery system. All his rockets are crashing,” Trump said. “We have a lot of firepower over there. We have two submarines — the best in the world — we have two nuclear submarines — not that we want to use them at all. . . . He could be crazy, so we’ll see what happens.”
“Say hello to the people of the Philippines for me,” he said.
To the extent one can tell from leaked transcripts and descriptions by other governments, Trump’s private persona in conversations with world leaders is remarkably like his public persona at home. Some foreign leaders have described him as rude, stubborn and uninformed.
But the Zelensky call was unique in the known universe of Trump behavior in its apparent attempt to use the power of the U.S. presidency to damage his political adversaries.
Both the content and tone of the exchange, Meacham said, are “a rare instance of a president using a diplomatic call for quite personal political advantage.”
“There are diplomatic calls, there are leader-to-leader rapport maintenance calls, and then there’s Trump. And Trump, in my reading, in a way I have not seen, has conscripted a foreign leader into his intimate political circle.”
“This is an extreme example of his freewheeling style,” he said. “It’s not as though he even knew the guy,” Meacham said of Zelensky, whom Trump had called two months earlier to congratulate him on his presidential election.
Another unusual aspect of the conversation is that Trump appeared to have conducted it from the White House residence, at 9:03 a.m. on July 25, rather than in the Oval Office.
Protocols for foreign leader calls by the president have a traditional format, said Larry Pfeiffer, a 30-year U.S. intelligence veteran who managed the White House Situation Room during the Obama years.
The national security adviser or his deputy gives the president a few minutes warning that a scheduled call is about to occur and goes over aide-prepared talking points one more time. The call is connected, and the president speaks into a handset — with or without an interpreter, as necessary — while aides in the room listen in. In the Situation Room, two or three typists wearing headsets also listen in, each taking down every word. Later, they reconcile their separate versions into a “working transcript” that then goes to the National Security Council to finalize.
When he began working in the room, “my predecessor laid out this elaborate process,” Pfeiffer said. When he asked why they didn’t simply record the conversations, “I was told that we stopped recording calls at the White House in 1974,” when Nixon’s Oval Office taping system was revealed.
“It’s personal speculation, but I think there’s a certain level of deniability it affords the president if it’s done by human being as opposed to a recording,” he said.