Not Necessarily

For those not in on the news: somebody leaked transcripts of the President’s phone conversations and people are talking about the implications of the leaks.  Folks on the left are largely supportive because they think the transcripts embarrass the President, some folks on the right who don’t even like Trump are, however, concerned.  For example.

That tells us nothing about Trump that we didn’t already know from his public statements. All that the leaking of these conversations achieves is to make it harder for future presidents to speak in confidence with their foreign counterparts. We know from his foreign trips and public appearances that Trump disdains diplomacy and manages relations with close allies poorly, so we aren’t learning anything that we needed to know from these transcripts that we couldn’t find out another way. Publishing these transcripts was intended to embarrass Trump, and it has succeeded, but it has done so at a cost to future U.S. diplomacy that isn’t worth whatever brief satisfaction it may give the people responsible for it.

I agree that this is a staggeringly abnormal event.  However, I’m decidedly unsure that this comes at the cost indicated, and I’m also unsure that it was intended solely to embarrass Trump.

To explain that further:

Trump is an outlier in U.S. politics that we haven’t seen arguably since Jackson and perhaps ever.  As Trumwill pointed out on Twitter the other day, this caused problems even back in the campaign, since “not being like any recent candidate” means judging him by “the norms of the recent candidates” is probably what led to people assuming that “things that Trump said that would have disqualified anybody other than Trump” were also going to lead to Trump’s disqualification.

The flip side to this observation applies to this leak, which exposes a possible error in Mr. Larison’s thought process here.

Since Trump is an outlier, we cannot expect that the reactions to Trump (either by Congress or by the internal mechanisms of the institutional White House/Executive Branch) will follow norms either.  The likelihood of any of these norm violations continuing past the current Presidency is thus severely diminished: folks inside the Executive Branch are acting abnormally because Trump is abnormal, and once Trump is no longer President most of these abnormal reactions will decline.

Of course, not all of them will.  You push institutional norms far enough, they don’t rebound completely.  Some of the things that people will do in response to Trump will indeed become “the new normal”.  So I won’t discount this specific concern entirely, but there are other (quite good) reasons to suppose that this particular one will rebound.

One of those good reasons is actually my rejoinder to Larison’s other contention: that this was done solely to embarrass Trump.  I don’t believe this is actually the case, for two reasons.

The most important one: because all evidence suggests that “embarrassing Trump” is not an attainable goal in the first place.  It’s certainly not a reward that I believe likely enough to motivate someone who is risking quite a lot to leak this conversation (as Daniel points out in his own piece: nothing in these conversations is particularly earth-shattering news).  Most people don’t go far out on a limb to do something risky unless they see a concrete reward.  And as dysfunctional as this White House has become, the government is a pretty conservative organization when it comes to this sort of thing, and I don’t believe that those institutional norms are close to shattering quite to the point where just anybody is leaking whatever (although given another six months of this, maybe).

Two, because the White House is itself an organism, one that is not just The President, and there are a huge number of people between the President and *everything*.

Viewed in that frame, I don’t think this is a message to Trump.  This is a message to everyone else in the White House that is involved in international diplomacy:

“Do everything you can to keep this guy off the phone.  Handle everything you can at lower levels.”

That *is* a message that lower-level lifelong government employees would possibly risk their own careers to send, because it’s showing the value of the work that they do.

It’s essentially a plea, from the person leaking this information:

“We can do so, so much better than this guy.  Folks in his inner circle?  Keep him busy.  Keep him off the phone.  Help me craft things on the side where he can’t see them and muck them up, and then you can take them to his desk to sign, where he can get a photo op and be happy, and you can get some credit, and I can get the actual work of this government done.”


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Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution. ...more →

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12 thoughts on “Not Necessarily

  1. It’s a bad thing that these kind of things are leaked. Prez’s need to be able to have conversations that don’t’ immediately become public. As noted its not like we didn’t know he was lying about most of everything he has said or that we won’t find out Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall. For the most part people who believed that were not only suckers but actively wanted to be suckered. But some conversations should be confidential at least for a while. I’m also not really interested in the complaints of Trump supporters who are pissed off about how this is wrong, even though it is, and are embarrassed about how poorly it makes their dude look. Bed made, lay in it, etc.

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  2. Cui bono? Policy professionals, sure. I agree with the OP at least that far. But I’m not ready to dismiss the notion that it’s senior Presidential staff making all this happen.

    Isn’t it most likely that this is someone within the President’s immediate circle who has not been able to push The Man out of policy issues completely with arguments like “You like the public ceremonies and don’t like the policy details, so just delegate that stuff!” The most benign motive I can see is that Trump lacks aptitude and affinity for actual government, but someone has to do it, so the top staff are just trying to push him to adopt a purely symbolic, head-of-state-only sort of role. A future President would in theory not have to worry about this (but might have to worry about some other sort of infighting) so long as she can demonstrate the intellectual engagement with actual government necessary to not scare the piss out of her policy people.

    The notion that this is a House of Cards maneuver originating from some Machiavellian mastermind like Steve Bannon or Vice President Pence or Secretary Tillerson seems really improbable. While I’ve no doubt that scheming and jockeying for position is part of the day to day, real-life experience suggests that this sort of thing is usually done both out in the open and with very little subtlety.

    If it’s going to be a TV analogy, I’m wondering if it’s LIttlefinger buying Joffrey the crossbow, but discovering that the damn boy-King still shows up at small council meetings anyway and not listening to Cercei telling him that he looks tired and needs some sleep.

    I don’t know whether that counts as agreeing with or disagreeing with the OP, beyond moving away from the “deep state with a benign face” attribution that rings too harmoniously with breathless conspiracy theories for my preference.

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    • This is entirely possible.

      If this is the case, however, it’s indicative of Trump not knowing how to run an administration, if his own people are the source… which means it’s still not driven by a desire to embarrass Trump directly, but a jockeying for position move.

      Which is even more terrible, sure.

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    • Do recall that Trump’s preferred managerial style is to, basically, hand everyone a set of knives and reward whomever sticks the most into someone’s back the Leader’s Ear until the next day’s challenge.

      Add that to the fact that Trump clearly obsesses over how he’s viewed in the media and seems to judge “success” based on how the media reports things…

      Well, there’s literally no way his White House isn’t the leakiest ship in the world. It’s designed to be. Backstabbing is the game, and the media is the scoreboard.

      I have no confidence Kelly will be able to do anything about it — this isn’t a problem of staff, it’s the inevitable result of a leadership style.

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  3. surprisingly, i’m not inclined to think that the conversations in the transcript do all that much to discredit Trump. Every politician finds that they have to worry about public opinion, and the consequences of appearances, and unkeepable campaign promises made; getting past Trump’s sub-standard command of English, what I see here is someone who isn’t afraid to push hard on foreign leaders. Polite talk is for public consumption; do we have transcripts of previous Presidents negotiating with other foreign leaders with which to compare? We don’t have a whole lot of them with which to compare. The alleged transcript of a 2014 call between Obama and Netanyahu, in which Obama was pretty pushy, and a Bush transcript of a call with Philippines.

    On the other hand, this kind of release is completely debilitating to US foreign policy. Who’s going to talk to the President now?

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    • getting past Trump’s sub-standard command of English

      It’s not his substandard command of English. It’s his total failure to understand what the other guy is talking about, at least in the Australian conversation. (I don’t think I’ve read the other one.)

      It is explained in fairly easy terms, in fact, it’s so easy to understand what is being talked about that I will not explain it, except that it’s about a 1200 refugees currently in Australia that the US had agreed to take under Obama.

      Trump not only enters the conversation apparently not having done any research, which could possibly be just laziness, but then he completely fails to understand stuff that is being clearly explained to him. Stuff anyone else reading the transcript will understand.

      Go ahead. Start with the background information that Trump apparently did grasp: ‘Under Obama, the US has committed to taking a certain number (I’ll even go easy on him forgetting the specific number, although that’s really the sort of thing the president should be briefed on.) of refugees from Australia’. That’s the premise of the conversation. Now pull it up in your web browser and read it, and see how long it takes you to understand what is going on with Australia.

      And now remember that this guy is president, and presumably had his own staff that he could have all this explained to him…and probably did. He just didn’t follow it, or forgot it.

      There is a reason he does not do interviews. There is a reason he does not do press conferences.

      People, at this point, seem to understand that Trump has all sorts of psychological issues that make him unsuited to be president, but have failed to notice, or at least failed to talk about, something I keep bringing up: Donald Trump is deeply deeply stupid.

      I don’t mean that as some sort of insult because I don’t like him, and I don’t mean stupid as in ‘He makes illegal choices or choices I disagree with’, I mean he actually cannot process information. Very simple facts have to be repeated over and over until they get into his head.

      It’s the reason he gets angry when people are talking to him. It’s because he does not understand what they are trying to explain to him, and anger is his way of ending the conversation.

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  4. If the leaker needed to communicate “Don’t let Trump lead negotiations” they picked the worst possible way to do it. If you need to communicate something potentially embarrassing to a colleague there are many ways one might do it,and sending it via a newspaper is the very last one you should use.

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  5. What’s interesting to me is how carefully vetted the leaked sections are. Nothing particularly new or sensitive is released by these leaks; the conversations in question make the President’s counterparts in Mexico and Australia come out looking just fine (The Mexican President sounds firm and committed; the Australian Prime Minister comes off diplomatic and knowledgeable); and no sensitive national security info is revealed. The leak is fine tuned to make Trump look awful without any collateral damage to diplomatic relations or national security. That suggests to me that it was more senior level staffers doing the leaking.

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    • What’s interesting to me is how carefully vetted the leaked sections are.

      It’s not a ‘leaked section’, the entire conversation is out, at least the Australian one: http://www.smh.com.au/world/full-transcript-donald-trump-and-malcolm-turnbull-telephone-conversation-20170803-gxp13g.html

      It starts with hello and ends with goodbye, it’s the full thing.

      Granted, there isn’t any sensitive information in there, but I think that’s mostly because no one (In our government or theirs) is going to share sensitive information with Donald Trump if they can help it.

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      • Though the fact that it’s only these two leaders and not any of the dozens of others Trump talked to point to some sort of deliberate choice.

        There’s no desk officer in the US govt that has these two countries together in their portfolio. Though on the other hand, I want to say some parts of these specific conversations were leaked before, as SNL did a (very funny) parody with Trump talking to Trumbull and EPN (and Mugabe, but I’m almost certain that one was made up entirely) back close to when they happened.

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