The calls caused former Trump MPs, including national security advisers HR McMaster and John Bolton, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, and officials. For intelligence, they concluded that the President was often "delusional," as two sources put it, in his dealings with foreign leaders. Sources said there was little evidence that the president became more skillful or competent in his phone conversations with most heads of state over time. Rather, he continued to believe that he could charm, confuse, or intimidate almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will, and he often pursued goals more in tune with his own agenda than many of his top advisers considered to be in the national interest.
By far the largest number of Trump phone conversations with an individual head of state was with Erdogan, who sometimes telephoned the White House at least twice a week and communicated directly with the President on Trump's permanent order, according to the sources. Meanwhile, the president intimidated and degraded the leaders of America's top allies, especially two women: telling Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom that she was weak and worthless; and telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she was "stupid".
Trump boasted incessantly to his fellow heads of state, including Saudi Arabia's autocratic royal heir Mohammed bin Salman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, about his own wealth, genius, "great" achievements as president, and the "idiocy" of its predecessors Oval Office, according to sources.
In his conversations with Putin and Erdogan, Trump took particular delight in smashing former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and suggested that dealing directly with him, Trump, would be far more fruitful than during previous administrations. "They did not know BS," he said of Bush and Obama, one of several mocking tropes that sources said he preferred when discussing their predecessors with Turkish and Russian leaders.
Like Bolton, CNN sources said the president seemed to continually combine his own personal interests, especially for re-election and revenge against perceived critics and political enemies, with the national interest.
To protect the anonymity of those who describe the calls for this report, CNN will not disclose their job titles or directly quote them. More than a dozen officials listened to the President's phone calls in real time or were provided with detailed summaries and hard copies of the calls in short text shortly after their completion, CNN sources said. CNN interviewed the sources repeatedly over a four-month period that lasted until June.
Sources cited a few cases in which they said Trump acted responsibly and in the national interest during phone conversations with some foreign leaders. CNN contacted Kelly, McMaster and Tillerson for comment and received no response until Monday afternoon. Mattis did not comment.
The White House had not responded to a request for comment until Monday afternoon.
A person familiar with almost all conversations with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe cumulatively described the calls as & # 39; abominations & # 39; So serious to the national security interests of the United States that if members of Congress listened to witnesses to the actual talks or read contemporary texts and notes, even many high-ranking Republican members could no longer maintain the trust in the President.
Attack major allied leaders, especially women.
The insidious effect of the talks comes from Trump's tone, his furious outbursts with allies as he flatters authoritarian strongmen, his ignorance of history and lack of preparation as much as of the troubled substance, according to sources. While in office, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed concern to his subordinates that Trump's telephone discussions were undermining the consistent conduct of US foreign relations and goals around the world, one of the officials said. CNN sources. And in recent weeks, former chief of staff Kelly has mentioned the damaging impact of the president's calls on the national security of the United States to several individuals in private.
Two sources compared many of the president's conversations with foreign leaders to Trump's recent "briefings" on the coronavirus pandemic: free form, factual ramblings of consciousness, fanciful and outlandish pronouncements based on in their intuitions, conjectures, the opinions of Fox News TV presenters and the misinformation of social networks.
In addition to Merkel and May, sources said, Trump regularly intimidated and belittled other leaders of the Western alliance during their phone conversations, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the same hostile and aggressive way he discussed the coronavirus with some of the governors of the United States.
Along with Erdogan, no foreign leader initiated more calls with Trump than Macron, sources said, with the French president often trying to convince Trump to change course on environmental and security policies, including climate change and withdrawal. from the United States of Iranian nuclear power. agreement.
Macron usually went "nowhere" on substantive issues, while Trump was angered by the stream of requests from the French president and subjected him to selfish speeches and lectures that were described by one source as personalized verbal "lashes", especially about France. and other countries. it does not meet NATO's spending targets, its liberal immigration policies, or its trade imbalances with the United States.
But her most vicious attacks, the sources said, were aimed at female heads of state. In conversations with May and Merkel, the president denigrated and denigrated them in tirades described as "almost sadistic" by one source and confirmed by others. "Some of the things he said to Angela Merkel are incredible: he called her 'stupid' and accused her of being in the pocket of the Russians … He is the hardest (on phone calls) with the that he considers weak and weaker than he should be tough. "
The calls "are so unusual," confirmed a German official, that special measures were taken in Berlin to ensure that their content remained secret. The official described Trump's behavior with Merkel in the calls as "very aggressive" and said that the circle of German officials involved in monitoring Merkel's calls with Trump has shrunk: "It is just a small circle of people involved and the reason, the main reason, is that they are really problematic. "
"He was upset about something with Theresa May, then he got nasty to her on the phone call," said a source. "It is the same interaction in all environments, coronavirus or Brexit, without applying any filter."
Merkel remained calm and apparently calm in the face of Trump's attacks, "like the water on a duck's back," in the words of a source, and she regularly responded to her bravado with recitations of deeds. The German official quoted above said that during Merkel's visit to the White House two years ago, Trump displayed "very questionable behavior" that "was quite aggressive … (E) the chancellor remained calm, and that is what does over the phone. "
Prime Minister May, by contrast, was "nervous and nervous" in her talks with the President. "It clearly intimidated her and she intended to," said one of the CNN sources. In response to a request for comment on Trump's behavior on calls with May, the UK's Downing Street referred CNN to its website. The site lists brief descriptions of the content of some calls and avoids any mention of pitch or tension. The French embassy in Washington declined to comment, while the Russian and Turkish embassies did not respond to requests for comment.
Concerns about calls with Putin and Erdogan
The calls with Putin and Erdogan were particularly egregious in terms that Trump hardly ever prepared in a substantial way, and thus left him liable to be exploited in various ways, according to sources, in part because of those conversations (as with most heads of state). ), almost certainly were registered by the security services and other agencies in their countries.
In his telephone exchanges with Putin, the sources reported, the President spoke mostly of himself, often in exaggerated and forceful terms: promoting his "unprecedented" success in building the American economy; affirming in mocking language how much smarter and "stronger" it is than "the imbeciles" and the "weak" who came before him in the presidency (especially Obama); reveling in his experience running the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and obsequiously courting Putin's admiration and approval. Putin "just gets over it," said a senior administrative official, comparing the Russian leader to a grand chess master and Trump to an occasional checker player. While Putin "destabilizes the West," said this source, the President of the United States "sits there and thinks that he can develop sufficiently as a businessman and tough guy that Putin will respect him." (Sometimes the conversations between Putin and Trump sounded like "two boys in a steam room," added a source.)
In numerous calls to Putin that were described to CNN, Trump stunned top national security assistants and his chiefs of staff, less for the specific concessions he made than for his attitude, overly solicitous of Putin's admiration and apparently seeking his approval. although he generally ignores experience in substantive policies and important issues on the permanent bilateral agenda, including human rights; and a gun control deal, which was never dealt with in a way that would advance sharing Russian and American goals that both Putin and Trump professed to favor, CNN sources said.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has touted the "America First" issue as his northern star in foreign policy, promoting the view that America's allies and adversaries have taken advantage of America's goodwill in trade. And that America's closest allies need to increase their share of collective defense spending. He frequently justifies his apparent deference to Putin by arguing that Russia is an important world player and that the United States is interested in having a constructive and friendly relationship, which requires a restart with Moscow through its personal dialogue with Putin.
In separate interviews, two high-level administration officials familiar with most Trump-Putin calls said the president naively raised Russia, a second-rate totalitarian state with less than 4% of world GDP, and its leader authoritarian almost on par with the United States and its President by undermining the harshest and most realistic vision of Russia expressed by the US Congress, US intelligence agencies, and the long-standing consensus of US post-war policies and its European allies. "He (Trump) gives away the advantage he gained so strongly in the Cold War," said one of the officials, in part by "giving Putin and Russia a legitimacy they never had," the official said. "It has given Russia a lifeline, because there is no doubt that they are a declining power … It is playing with something it does not understand and it is giving them the power they would use (aggressively)."
Both officials cited Trump's decision to pull US troops out of Syria, a move that benefited both Turkey and Russia, as perhaps the most serious example. "I was giving away the store," said one of them.
The frequency of calls with Erdogan, in which the Turkish president continually pressured Trump for political concessions and other favors, was especially worrisome for McMaster, Bolton and Kelly, not least because of the ease with which Erdogan overlooked the Council of Normal National Security. protocols and procedures to reach the President, two of the sources said.
Erdogan became so adept at knowing when to contact the President directly that some White House aides were convinced that Turkey's security services in Washington were using Trump's time and whereabouts to provide him with information on when the President would be available. for a call.
On some occasions Erdogan caught up with him on the golf course and Trump delayed the game while the two spoke at length.
Two sources described the president as woefully uninformed about the history of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East in general, saying they often caught him off guard and lacked sufficient knowledge to participate equally in a nuanced political discussion with Erdogan. "Erdogan took him to the dry cleaner," said one of the sources.
Sources said damaging U.S. political decisions on Syria, including the president's directive to remove U.S. forces from the country, which later allowed Turkey to attack Kurds who had helped the United States fight ISIS and weakened NATO's role in the conflict were directly linked to Erdogan's ability to get away with Trump on phone calls.
Trump occasionally got angry at Erdogan, sometimes because of demands that Turkey be granted preferential trade status, and because the Turkish leader would not release an imprisoned American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, accused of & # 39; aiding terrorism & # 39; in the 2016 coup that attempted to overthrow Erdogan. Brunson was finally released in October 2018.
Despite the lack of prior notice for many of Erdogan's calls, there are complete sets of contemporary notes from designated note takers at the White House, as well as voice-generated computer texts of the conversations, the sources said.
According to a high-level source, there are also summaries and conversational readings of the president's discussions with Erdogan that could bolster Bolton's accusations against Trump in the so-called "Halkbank case," which involves a major Turkish bank with suspected ties to Erdogan. . and his family. That source said the matter was raised in more than one phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump.
Bolton wrote in his book that in December 2018, at Erdogan's urging, Trump offered to interfere in an investigation by then-US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman about the Turkish bank, accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. .
"Trump later told Erdogan that he would take care of things, explaining that prosecutors in the Southern District were not his people, but Obama's people, a problem that would be solved when they were replaced by his people," Bolton wrote. Berman's office finally filed an indictment against the bank in October 2019 for fraud, money laundering, and other crimes related to participation in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. On June 20, Trump fired Berman, whose office is also investigating Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, after the prosecutor refused to resign on the order of attorney general William Barr.
Unlike Bolton, CNN sources did not specifically state or suggest that Trump's calls with Erdogan may have been the subject of impeachment due to possible evidence of the President's illegal conduct. Rather, they characterized Trump's calls with heads of state as a whole as evidence of Trump's general "inability" for the presidency on the basis of temperament and incompetence, a claim Bolton also made in an interview to promote his book with ABC. News last week: "I don't think I'm fit for the job. I don't think I have the competition to get the job done," Bolton said.
Comments and complaints from family fuel Trump's approach
CNN spoke to sources familiar with the president's phone calls repeatedly over a four-month period. In their interviews, the sources were very careful not to reveal specific national security information and classified details, but instead described the broad content of many of the calls and the general tenor and methodology of Trump's approach in his phone conversations with foreign leaders. .
In addition to the voice-generated software transcript, almost all of Trump's phone conversations with Putin, Erdogan, and Western alliance leaders were supplemented and documented by extensive contemporary note-taking (and often summaries) prepared by Fiona. Hill, assistant deputy to the NSC president and senior director for Europe and Russia until his resignation last year. Hill listened to most of the president's calls with Putin, Erdogan and European leaders, according to his closed-door testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last November.
Elements of that Hill testimony, if reexamined by Congressional investigators, could provide a detailed roadmap of the President's widely documented conversations, the sources said. The White House and intelligence officials familiar with the voice-generated transcripts and underlying documents agreed that their content could be devastating to the President's position with members of Congress from both parties, and the public, if revealed in great detail. . (There is no doubt that Trump would invoke executive privilege to keep the talks private. However, some former officials with detailed knowledge of many of the talks may be willing to testify about them, the sources said.)
In one of the first calls between Putin and Trump, President Jared Kushner's son-in-law and Ivanka Trump were in the room to listen, joining McMaster, Tillerson, Hill, and a State Department aide to Tillerson.
"The call was all over the place," said an NSC deputy who read a detailed summary of the conversation, with Putin speaking substantively and extensively, and Trump relying on brief autobiographical outbursts of boasting, self-gratification, and adulation towards Putin as described by CNN. Kushner and Ivanka Trump were immediately effusive in their praise of how Trump had handled the call, while Tillerson (who knew Putin well from his years in Russia as an oil executive), Hill and McMaster were skeptical.
Hill, the author of a definitive biography of Putin, began to explain some of the nuances she perceived of the call, according to CNN sources, offering an insight into Putin's psychology, his typical and "linear" approach and what the leader Russian was trying to achieve on the call. Trump cut Hill off, and the President continued to discuss the call with Jared and Ivanka, making it clear that he wanted to hear their daughter and husband's congratulatory assessment, rather than how Hill, Tillerson, or McMaster judged the conversation.
McMaster saw that early phone call with Putin as indicative of the conduct of the entire relationship between Russia and the Trump administration, according to sources: a later conclusion by national security advisers and chiefs of staff, and numerous high-ranking intelligence officials as well. They arrived: Unlike previous administrations, there were relatively few significant deals between military and diplomatic professionals, even at the highest levels, because Trump, distrustful of experts and dismissive of his attempts to report him, drove the relationship largely ad hoc with Putin and almost totally alone. Finally, Putin and the Russians learned that "no one has the authority to do anything," and the Russian leader used that information to his advantage, as one of the CNN sources said.
The Kushners were also present for other important calls with foreign leaders and made their primacy evident, encouraged by the President even on foreign policy issues in which her daughter and husband had no experience. Almost never, according to CNN sources, Trump would read the informational materials prepared for him by CIA and NSC staff before his calls with the heads of state.
"He won't consult them, he won't even get his wisdom," said one source, who cited bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as one of the first on a list of leaders whom Trump "picks up and calls without anyone being prepared." , "A scenario that frequently confronted NSC and intelligence aides. The source added that the defenseless reaction of the attendees" would often be: "Oh my God, don't make that phone call."
"Trump's opinion is that he is a better judge of character than anyone," said one of the CNN sources. The president consistently rejected advice from the US defense, intelligence, and national security directors to approach the Russian president more firmly and less confidently. CNN sources cited the most notable public example as "iconic": Trump, standing next to the Russian president at his meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in June 2018, saying he "saw no reason why" Russia would have interfered in the 2016 presidential election, despite the findings of Moscow's entire U.S. intelligence community. "President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," said Trump.
The common and overwhelming dynamic that characterizes Trump's conversations with authoritarian dictators and the leaders of the world's largest democracies is his constant affirmation of himself as the defining theme and subtext of calls, hardly ever the United States and his place. history and leadership in the world, according to sources intimately familiar with the calls.
In numerous calls with the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada, the United States' closest allies in the past 75 years, the entire post-war era, Trump generally settled a complaint almost as a default or leitmotiv of the conversation, whatever the supposed agenda is, according to those sources.
"Everything was always personalized, with everyone doing terrible things to rip us off, which meant ripping me off," Trump said. He could not, or could not, see or focus on the big picture, "said one United States official.
The source cited a remarkably demonstrable instance in which Trump resisted asking Angela Merkel (at the behest of the United Kingdom) to hold Russia publicly responsible for so-called radioactive poisonings & # 39; Salisbury & # 39; from a former Russian spy and his daughter, in whom Putin had denied any Russian involvement despite voluminous evidence to the contrary. "It took a lot of effort" for Trump to raise the issue, a source said. Rather than addressing Russia's responsibility for the poisonings and keeping it to international account, Trump made the focus of the call, in personally degrading terms, the supposedly unacceptable approach by Germany and Merkel to share the Allied burden. Finally, the sources said, as urged by his NSC staff, Trump finally addressed the issue of poisonings, almost reluctantly.
"With almost all the problems, all it takes (on your phone calls) is for someone to ask you to do something as president on behalf of the United States and you don't see it that way; you're going to be scammed; you're not interested on cooperative issues or working on them together, instead you're turning things around or pushing real problems into a corner, "said a United States official.
"There was no feeling of 'Team America' in the talks," or of the United States as a historic force with certain democratic principles and leadership of the free world, the official said. "The opposite. It was as if the United States had disappeared. It was always & # 39; Just me & # 39;".
CNN's Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.