That President Trump is up against the entrenched hostility of some of the US bureaucracy has been highlighted again by malicious leaks which have been spread in the media about his recent telephone conversation with Russian President Putin.
These leaks claim that Trump checked with his aides during the call the New START arms control treaty – agreed in 2010 between Russia and the Obama administration – the subject of whose renewal Putin is supposed to have touched on.
Assuming these claims are true – which they almost certainly are – they reveal nothing shocking or unusual. There is nothing wrong about a leader checking a fact with his aides during a call. That is what the aides are there for.
What would have been serious is if Trump had tried to wing the call by pretending to know about an arms control treaty he actually knew nothing about. No-one however suggests that that is what he did.
Not for the first or the last time Trump is being called out for actually doing something sensible.
Putting that aside, what is interesting about this episode is what it reveals about the elaborate preparations that take place before a US President is expected to speak to another world leader on the telephone.
Typically, before a telephone call with a foreign leader, a president receives a written in-depth briefing paper drafted by National Security Council staff after consultations with the relevant agencies, including the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies, two former senior officials said.
Just before the call, the president also usually receives an oral “pre-briefing” from his national security adviser and top subject-matter aide, they said.
Trump did not receive a briefing from Russia experts with the NSC and intelligence agencies before the Putin call, two of the sources said. Reuters was unable to determine if Trump received a briefing from his national security adviser Michael Flynn.
It seems that what has angered the bureaucracy – and what caused the leaks – is that President Trump dispensed with this procedure, so that when the time came for him to speak to Putin he simply picked the telephone up.
I will here state my opinion which is that Donald Trump was absolutely right to do this. A President who subjects himself to such an elaborate briefing process before he dares pick up the telephone is the prisoner of his bureaucracy not its master.
President Putin regularly speaks to several world leaders a week and during moments of crisis he has been known to speak to several world leaders over the course of a single day. It beggars belief that he goes through such an elaborate briefing process every time he does so.
Almost certainly Putin does not need to. Precisely because Putin talks to other leaders all the time and is personally involved in diplomacy he is fully informed about the issues without needing to go through an elaborate briefing process to learn about them.
Inevitably at the beginning of his Presidency a new President has much to learn – thus Trump’s question about the New START treaty – but ultimately the only way for him to acquire a full and confident knowledge of the issues is by talking freely and openly to the people he has to deal with. In the meantime nothing is lost by asking the odd question, and it takes a peculiarly insecure personality to think otherwise.
I would add that no one at this early stage in Trump’s Presidency supposes that Trump and Putin are going to make binding agreements with each other over the telephone, so there is no risk in letting the two men talk to each other. Talk of Trump “denouncing” the New START treaty and “hectoring” Putin during the call is absurd.
In passing, the fact that Barack Obama apparently did put himself through the briefing process before he spoke to any world leader explains a great deal about the ultimate failure of his Presidency. Not only did it mean that he rarely spoke to other leaders – thereby cutting himself and the US out of international diplomacy – but it also explains why he always in the end followed the conventional thinking of Official Washington, from whose script he was always reading.
Donald Trump it seems is determined to be different. He is right to be and should stick with it even if Official Washington doesn’t like it.