For Donald Trump, all politics is personal. And leaked transcripts of his calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia prove it.
In six months as President, it’s become clear that the great issues of the day and the globe are refracted by Trump through a prism of how they can tarnish or advantage his own personal political brand.
In his fierce desire for a “win” on health care, or his delight over a lavish welcome at France’s Bastille Day parade, or boasts about states he won in the election, the President has often left the impression that it is all about him.
That critique is now solidified by fascinating transcripts of calls Trump made in the early days of his presidency to two allied leaders – Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull.
The contentious calls, related in transcripts published by The Washington Post Thursday, focus mainly on two issues – Trump’s vows to make Mexico pay for a border wall, and his anger about an Obama administration deal for the US to accept refugees originating from Muslim nations from Australia.
The conversations reveal Trump’s intensely personal take on both concerns.
“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,” the President tells Peña Nieto.
Sensitive to the political dent he could face over the Australia deal given his hard-line position on immigration and refugees, Trump warns Turnbull: “This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country.”
The White House would not confirm the authenticity of the transcripts, branding them leaked, classified documents – but they do back up previous reports about Trump’s explosive performance in the calls. Trump told the Australian prime minister he had a much better call with Russian President Vladimir Putin than him, and treats both leaders more like adversaries than friends.
The transcripts are unlikely to inflict much political damage on Trump, since like most firestorms surrounding the President, they will divide the country on familiar lines. Washington foreign policy elites will be horrified with his brusque treatment of fellow leaders and trashing of diplomatic protocol. But Trump voters may no doubt approve of the way he is manhandling those same leaders, and standing up for positions on Mexico and refugees that he believes help him win the presidency.
All presidents face a learning curve when they take office – when they find out that positions taken on the campaign trail are often inoperable when wider national interests are at stake.
And since he made the calls on January 27 and 28, Trump’s unrestrained diplomatic method may have evolved.
But while the President is acutely sensitive to his own personal and political position in the US, he’s almost completely indifferent to the political tectonics grinding fellow political leaders.
The President, while trying to convince Peña Nieto and Turnbull to see things his way, shows little sign that he has mastered one of the keys to global deal making — building political space to allow a fellow leader to help him.
Traditionally, working out a friend or rival’s political constraints and redlines in a domestic context has been one of the key tools world leaders use bend interlocutors to their way to move legislation or diplomatic goals.
Sometimes, it works when threats don’t.
The Peña Nieto call opens with the Mexican president seeking a conventional diplomatic compromise, noting that both he and Trump are in a tough spot over the wall, but suggesting a way out is possible.
“I understand, Mr. President, the small political margin that you have now in terms of everything you said that you established throughout your campaign,” Peña Nieto told the President. “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.”
Trump admits they are both in a “little bit of a political bind,” but adds that “I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to. I have been talking about it for a two year period.”
And he tries to convince the Mexican leader just to let the issue of paying for the wall slide. He doesn’t argue the principle of Mexico paying for the wall, he argues instead that ruling such a scenario out would hurt him politically.
“But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out,” Trump said.
Such a position however shows little regard for the extreme political pressure that was being heaped on the unpopular Peña Nieto at the time, so much so, that he canceled a planned visit to meet Trump.
“You have a very big mark on our back, Mr. President, regarding who pays for the wall,” Peña Nieto says, suggesting they stop talking about the wall.
“But my position has been and will continue to be very firm saying that Mexico cannot pay for that wall.”
Handling refugees in Australia
Trump also seems oblivious, or uncaring about the parlous political position faced by Turnbull.
The fate of the refugees, who were confined in rough conditions in Nauru and the Papua New Guinean island of Manus, has long been a toxic issue in Australian politics.
Eventually, offering a favor to Australia, an ally that has been a steadfast supporter of the United States in every single war it has fought since the early 20th Century, President Barack Obama agreed to allow refugees from an offshore detention center to come to the United States.
It was a step born out of strong national bonds and a desire to offer a friend a leg up that might be returned down the line.
But Trump, with his political view dominating, rather than a broader world view, thinks the deal is absurd.
“I am saying, ‘boy, that will make us look awfully bad.’ Here I am calling for a ban where I am not letting anybody in and we take 2,000 people,” Trump tells the Australian leader.
Turnbull then tries to explain the political stakes he faces to Trump — and stresses that under the deal, Washington still would have the option to reject individual refugees, after vetting them.
“The bottom line is that we got here. I am asking you as a very good friend. This is a big deal. It is really, really important to us that we maintain it,” Turnbull said.
Again, though, Trump has his own political reputation in mind.
“This is a stupid deal. This deal will make me look terrible,” he says.
To which Turnbull replies: “Mr. President, I think this will make you look like a man who stands by the commitments of the United States.”
Trump hits back: “Okay, this shows me to be a dope. I am not like this but, if I have to do it, I will do it but I do not like this at all. I will be honest with you.”