The Strange Tale of Trump's Phone Call to Putin

A case study in how a story about substance turned into to just another incident of White House infighting

Leah Millis / Reuters


That was the instruction that President Donald Trump received on briefing materials before he called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to discuss Putin’s victory in a reelection widely regarded as corrupt.

But Trump did congratulate Putin, and he also declined to bring up the recent poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in London, a crime that the British government blames on the Kremlin. As I wrote on Tuesday, Trump’s reaction was somewhat out of the mainstream of American reaction when autocratic rulers win election, but not entirely apart. Barack Obama called Putin following his 2012 election victory, but waited several days before doing so, while the U.S. government criticized election regularities.

The difference can be partly explained by Trump’s disdain for this type of subtle diplomatic dig, and his partiality to grand gestures. But given Trump’s history with Russia, the statement sticks out. That history includes the president’s long history of complimentary statements about Putin; his notable reluctance to attribute electoral interference to Russia; Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’s tortured avoidance of statements critical of Russia, including her refusal Tuesday to say that the election was not free and fair; and of course the ongoing investigations into interference in the election, including the admissions by former Trump aides that they lied about conversations with the Russians.

One of the enduring characteristics of Donald Trump’s short but high-flying political career has been his ability to put behind him stories that would have sunk any other candidate. A news item that would dominate headlines for months in any other presidency can barely last through a day or two before it gets subsumed. (Case in point: Remember that time that Trump told Russian officials that firing “that nut job [James] Comey” took pressure off him? It’s largely forgotten, less than a year later.) The sheer volume of news is one part of that—there are just so many enormous stories—but the progress of the story of Trump’s congratulatory phone call to Putin seems like a useful case study in how a story quickly degrades from a novel one about substance (Trump’s dubious call to Putin) to one about process (how did this happen?) until it becomes just another typical Trump story.

First came the phone call, described in a brief White House readout and confirmed by Trump during a Tuesday afternoon appearance with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Then came Sanders’s weird press briefing.

Later in the evening on Tuesday, The Washington Post added a significant new piece of information: The president had been warned, in all caps, not to congratulate Putin during the call. But Trump decided to do so anyway, for whatever reason—continued affection for Putin, simple contrarianism, or his well-known aversion to actually reading briefing materials, or anything else.

Then, Wednesday morning, crack Axios reporter Jonathan Swan reported that “One of the most startling leaks—and stunning revelations—of this whole administration has left President Trump and his senior staff furious and rattled.” Is this one of the most stunning revelations of this administration? That certainly seems arguable. In any case, Swan continued, “The speed and sensitivity of the leak prompted immediate finger-pointing within the administration, as aides reeled from a leak that could only have come from a small group of people, each of whom is trusted with sensitive national secrets.”

This is interesting reporting—one certainly can’t fault Swan for publishing new details about what’s going on inside the White House—but it’s also where the slippage starts to appear. Suddenly a story about Trump’s weird approach to Russia has become a story about White House backbiting and disorganization, which is hardly fresh.

The Axios scoop opened up a whole flood of new information.

“Trump was fuming Tuesday night, asking his allies and outside advisers who they thought had leaked the information, noting that only a small group of staffers have access to those materials and would have known what guidance was included for the Putin call, the source said,” CNN reported. Another official told CNN—anonymously, ironically enough, “If this story is accurate, that means someone leaked the President’s briefing papers. Leaking such information is a fireable offense and likely illegal.”

On the one hand, this is true: The universe of people who ought to have access to his briefing materials is small, and if one of them chose to leak about them to the press, that’s eye-popping, and shows the depth of doubt about the president even among his top aides.

On the other hand, this paves the way for the story to slip further into the familiar territory of internecine warfare, weaponized leaks, and fear and loathing inside the Trump West Wing.

The new iteration of the story also makes way for Trump aides to reframe Trump’s response not as some sort of strange coddling of Putin, or even as imprudent dismissal of expert advice, but simply as another example of Trump being Trump.

“This is the way Trump is. If he’s doing business with you or working with you in some way, he’s going to congratulate you,” one official told Swan. And of course, by firing back anonymously at the unknown leaker, this official is reinforcing the focus on intramural sniping.

On Wednesday afternoon, Trump himself weighed in again. “I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also),” he tweeted. “The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.” But then, just as he’d shifted attention back to his outreach to Russia, he took pot-shots at his two most recent predecessors in office. “They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!”

Intramural sniping, Trump’s refusal to take advice, disagreements between Trump aides—these are all old stories. They can briefly gain fresh energy when another weird incident, like Trump ignoring clear advice and then that fact being promptly leaked, occurs. At heart, however, they’re always going to be old stories, just more flotsam in the Trump flood. Meanwhile, the underlying substance, of the president congratulating Putin, sinks into the muddied waters.