Leaked Transcripts Show How Foreign Leaders Manipulate Trump

Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto is smooth and conciliatory. Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull is blunt and insistent. But the two approaches both result in them getting their way with the president.

Donald Trump with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto
Donald Trump with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty)

What goes on when heads of state chat? It’s highly unusual for the public to know. Both parties usually release a “readout” that crisply summarizes the call and smooths over the roughest spots. Sometimes, there are revealing differences in the readouts, but often they’re close—neither side wants to publicize private conversations. (And when there’s no agreed-upon readout, as after President Trump’s July summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it sometimes causes rancor.) On rarer occasions, details will leak—in February, The Washington Post reported that Trump’s call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had turned acrimonious.

What never happens is that a full transcript of a conversation leaks.

Until now. (This truly is the never-say-never administration.) The Post on Thursday published full White House transcripts of two January calls—the Turnbull conversation, and another with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. As one might expect, they are full of interesting nuggets.

In those early days, before chaos totally engulfed his White House, Trump shows himself to be attentive to campaign promises about Mexico paying for a border wall and about not accepting any refugees. The president comes off as underprepared at times; he asks Turnbull to tutor him on details of a U.S agreement with Australia. He is full of bluster and nonsense (“I won with a large percentage of Hispanic voters,” he tells EPN, untruthfully) and outrageous comments (“Up in New Hampshire—I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den—is coming from the southern border,” Trump says, although he lost the state to Hillary Clinton in the general election.)

He is also unusually clear and complex in his discussions. Some publications, most notably STAT, have picked up on a marked decline in the president’s vocabulary and syntax over past statements. But while Trump is brash and unprepared in these calls, he is comparatively articulate—raising the possibility that he is intentionally dumbing down his speech in public, not only in rallies and speeches but also in press interviews, where he is sometimes entirely incoherent.

It’s probably not a good thing, in general, for transcripts like this to leak. Some elements of statecraft are necessarily private, and if they leak regularly, foreign leaders may be wary of speaking to Trump; or they might leak their own transcripts to try to inoculate themselves. That sources saw fit to leak these, against all precedent, shows how little control Trump has over the executive branch, and how many people there seem to dislike or distrust him.

But we do have these transcripts, and so examining them offers an extremely rare window into statecraft, and in particular into the different ways that two foreign leaders tried to grapple with Trump, an unproven leader with a reputation as a bit of a loose cannon. Peña Nieto, whose differences with Trump on policy are enormous, attempts a far more suave, conciliatory approach, downplaying differences and seeking to soothe Trump. Turnbull, on the other hand, as the leader of a traditionally close ally, adopts a far more aggressive, in-your-face style.

Which approach works better? The Turnbull call ends in some bitterness, but it’s notable that Trump basically concedes to Turnbull, admitting the U.S. would follow through on an agreed-upon intake of refugees. (Despite declaring it a “dumb deal” on Twitter following the call, Trump never backed out of it.) Yet Peña Nieto seems to have notched a win, too. Trump implores him not to say publicly that Mexico will not pay for a border wall, but he acknowledges the reality, and public claims that Mexico will pay for the wall have largely faded from Trump’s public statements.

The Conciliator: Enrique Peña Nieto

Mexico’s president, known as EPN, is a smooth, polished politician, a skill that helped land him the presidency, but has not protected him from disastrously low approval ratings—in part thanks to complaints that he’s been too supine toward Trump. EPN has a tough task: He knows that Trump’s central promise was to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, and he knows both that the wall would be bad for Mexico and that there’s no way Mexico will pay for it. But he also knows that the U.S. is a crucial ally and neighbor. So EPN takes a softer approach.

One thing that sticks out from this call is that the Mexican leader calls Trump “Mr. President” with surprising frequency—nearly 30 times over the course of the call. Trump greets him as “Mr. President,” but throughout the rest of the call calls him “Enrique.” Perhaps that’s an intentional move by Trump to make clear the power dynamic; it’s classic negging. Or maybe Trump just isn’t thinking about it. In any case, Peña Nieto bears the slight without complaint.

Throughout the call, EPN firmly insists that Mexico will not pay for the wall, but he also pours on the flattery for Trump, speaking about how he understands his position and looking for ways to build the relationship while acknowledging the difference of opinion on the wall.

“The first thing I want to say is that I highly appreciate the openness of your team and the willingness of your team to work to open a new framework between our two countries,” he says. He also subtly reminds Trump of what he is doing already: “I want to also thank you personally for what you said last Wednesday on the importance of Mexico to have a strong economy, and also the responsibility our administration has accepted to stop illegal trafficking of weapons and money coming into Mexico.”

EPN tries to show Trump how their situations are similar:

I understand, Mr. President, the small political margin that you have now in terms of everything you said that you established throughout your campaign. But I would also like to make you understand, President Trump, the lack of margin I have as President of Mexico to accept this situation. And this has been, unfortunately, the critical point that has not allowed us to move forward in the building of the relationship between our two countries. I propose, Mr. President, for you to allow us to look for ways to save these differences.

But Peña Nieto tries to plead his case. He objects to Trump’s recent mention of a border tax. Trump’s answer suggests that he has not mastered, or does not recognize, the difference between public and private speech.

“Enrique, if I can interrupt—this is not a new proposal,” he says. “This is what I have been saying for a year and a half on the campaign trail. I have been telling this to every group of 50,000 people or 25,000 people—because no one got people in their rallies as big as I did.”

Setting aside the gratuitous boast at the end, there’s something commendable about Trump’s interjection. EPN seems to assume that campaign language is campaign language, but what the two governments have actually discussed in private is a different world. For Trump, in this case, there is no difference.

On the other hand, Trump is soon doing the same thing—acknowledging that while he doesn’t think Mexico will pay for the wall, he doesn’t want Peña Nieto to say that publicly, because it will hurt Trump politically.

“We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that,” he says. “But you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”

EPN again tries to smooth things over, acknowledging Trump’s situation and diplomatically seeking a different path.

“I understand you well, Mr. President,” he says. “I understand this critical point and I understand the critical political position that this constitutes for your country and for you, Mr. President. Let us look for a creative way to jump over this obstacle. It does not mean that this is not an important issue—this is an important issue.”

So far, EPN’s approach seems to have worked. The phone call ends pleasantly, despite the remaining gulf between the men, and Trump seldom talks about Mexico paying for the wall anymore.

The Bulldog: Malcolm Turnbull

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a man with more in common with Trump, at least on paper, than Peña Nieto. Not only is Australia a close American ally with few obvious policy differences, but even in experience and temperament: “I believe you and I have similar backgrounds, unusual for politicians, more businessman but I look forward to working together,” says Turnbull. And yet this call turned out to be far more acrimonious than the one with Peña Nieto. (Interestingly, when word of the sharp words leaked, Trump insisted it was false: “Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about. Very nice!” It turns out he was not telling the truth.) Turnbull’s theory seems to be that Trump understands force and will respond to it, and he too seems to have been proven right.

The central point of tension was a group of 1,250 refugees from several countries who had arrived in Australia by boat. Australia refused to take them in, but convinced the Obama administration to do so. Trump, who had promised to end refugee resettlement, was less than enthused. (My colleague Krishnadev Calamur explains the controversy in more detail here.)

Turnbull makes little effort to put Trump at ease—he only drops three “Mr. Presidents”—and he heads straight into the controversy.

“Mr. President, can I return to the issue of the resettlement agreement that we had with the Obama administration with respect to some people on Nauru and Manus Island?” Turnbull asks. He notes that he had previously spoken with Vice President Mike Pence, and suggests that Pence himself disagreed with the president: “I do understand you are inclined to a different point of view than the vice president.” (It was Pence who, in April, announced that the U.S. would honor the deal.)

Trump soon gets distracted, delivering a digression about the evils of refugees. Turnbull steers him back: “Can you hear me out, Mr. President?” Trump replies, “Yeah, go ahead.” He repeatedly pushes Trump back on topic and explains the policy, which the president clearly has not fully absorbed. (At one point he questions the number of people involved.)

“Yes, but let me describe what it is. I think it is quite consistent. I think you can comply with it,” Turnbull says at one point. At another: “Let me explain. We know exactly who they are.” When Trump goes on a tangent about the Boston bombers, Turnbull will have none of it: “They were Russians. They were not from any of these countries.”

Soon Trump realizes that Turnbull is himself an immigration hardliner. Australia refused to take the people for fear it would encourage human smuggling. “Even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize-winning genius, we will not let you in,” Turnbull says.

Trump is impressed: “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”

When Trump claims that he’ll be “killed” politically, Turnbull just dismisses it: “You will not.” And then he goes for the kill himself: He simply states flatly that Trump will stick to terms of the deal, whether he likes it or not. “You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it,” Turnbull declares.

Trump is angry:

I have no choice to say that about it. Malcolm, I am going to say that I have no choice but to honor my predecessor’s deal. I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal that I would have never made. It is an embarrassment to the United States of America and you can say it just the way I said it. I will say it just that way. As far as I am concerned that is enough Malcom. I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous…. This is crazy.

But Turnbull doesn’t care. He’s gotten what he wanted. “Thank you for your commitment. It is very important to us,” he says.

* * *

Two countries, two leaders, two approaches—yet both succeeded, for different reasons. The calls with Malcolm Turnbull and Enrique Peña Nieto are not only a valuable document of how diplomacy works; they would also set a pattern. Time and again, foreign leaders have found that Trump is hardly the hardened negotiator he claims, but is instead a pushover. If they can get into a one-on-one conversation with Trump, they can usually convince him to come around to their position. If that was true on paying for the wall and taking refugees, it stands to reason it would be true for lesser Trump priorities, too.