When President Donald Trump’s phone rang in September, he was not eager for a lengthy conversation.
“The President was really in a bad mood,” recounted the man on the line, US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who was hoping to learn whether the President was, in fact, withholding security assistance to coerce Ukraine into investigating political rivals.
“I wouldn’t say he hung up me,” Sondland recalled, “but it was almost like he hung up on me.”
The absence of phone etiquette is hardly a surprise for a President not known for his manners. But like a pair of new books written by administration insiders, the episode recounted by Sondland during his daylong private deposition before lawmakers helps color the portrait of a mercurial and loyalty-minded President whose actions frequently toss his administration into chaos.
The picture that emerges from thousands of pages of transcribed sworn interviews – along with separate accounts from Nikki Haley, the former United Nations envoy, and an anonymous senior administration official – show Trump’s aides scrambling to contain the damage of his actions.
Some, such as Haley, came to resent attempts by her administration colleagues to circumvent the President. She writes in a new memoir that Trump’s former chief of staff and secretary of state attempted to recruit her to “save the country” by undermining his decisions – a request she refused.
Others, like those who have testified in the impeachment inquiry, watched in horror as Trump’s associates hijacked American diplomacy.
Like a new book written by an anonymous administration official, the transcripts depict a President consumed by festering grievances and an administration perpetually thrown into disarray by rash decisions – and the tweets that announce them.
Unlike that book, the recollections provided in the transcripts are provided by named individuals, speaking under the threat of criminal prosecution for lying to Congress. Most still work for Trump. Trump emerges in their depositions as fickle, susceptible to flattery and prone to grudges.
“They tried to take me down,” the President said of Ukraine during a now-scrutinized Oval Office meeting in May, venting it was Kiev that had attempted to damage him during the 2016 election – animus rooted in conspiracy that, despite efforts by his advisers to debunk, Trump ran with.
A fixation on grudges is a plotline mirrored in “A Warning,” the new book by the anonymous senior administration official who wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last year. The author writes at being appalled at Trump’s attempts to limit the national mourning for Republican Sen. John McCain, whose vote against a health care overhaul Trump never forgave.
Far from acting as guides to his foreign policy, diplomats and senior officials working for him are shown struggling to ascertain his positions and bracing for groundbreaking policy shifts to come without warning. Professional diplomats – some of whom still work in the administration – emerge from the testimony appearing shell-shocked by what was happening in Washington, at least at the moments when they could actually learn what that was.
At others, they describe futile efforts – including by watching Fox News – to learn what Trump’s associates were doing in the countries where they were posted, and after-the-fact realizations that they were being undercut by their own employer.
“With the advantage of hindsight, you’re going to think that I’m incredibly naive, but I couldn’t imagine all of the things that have happened over the last five or seven months,” the onetime US ambassador in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, said during her interview. “I just couldn’t imagine it.”
Like others who were interviewed, Yovanovitch expressed her deep concerns at the parallel foreign policy in Ukraine carried out by the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. He emerges in the pages of the transcripts both as a proxy for the President and a foot soldier attempting to nudge the Ukrainians into taking actions that would help Trump politically.
The realization came only over time to the professionals responsible for Ukraine.
“I worked extraordinarily long days, so the last thing that I wanted to do when I went home was watch television,” said Fiona Hill, the onetime senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council. “But I would have to go home in the evening and try to look on the news to see what Giuliani was saying.”
Even Trump’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seemed to acknowledge that the parallel diplomacy being carried out by Giuliani was a distraction – at one point rolling his eyes at the mention of Giuliani’s name – but still a necessary evil in the Trump administration.
“Yes, it’s something we have to deal with,” Sondland recalled Pompeo telling him about Giuliani.
That’s a more conciliatory approach than Trump’s previous secretary of state, according to Haley, who writes in her new book “With All Due Respect” that onetime top diplomat Rex Tillerson attempted to stymie some of Trump’s actions along with then-chief of staff John Kelly.
“Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country,” Haley writes in the forthcoming memoir, according to The Washington Post.
She said she turned down their overtures, insisting it was her duty to serve the President.
“It was their decisions, not the President’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said. The President didn’t know what he was doing,” she wrote.
If the “Anonymous” account is to be believed, Kelly and Tillerson were not the only administration officials who objected to Trump’s actions. The author claims a group of Trump aides considered resigned en masse before deciding that could harm the country further.
As Yovanovitch – who was recalled in May from her post in Kiev – confronted Giuliani’s effort to undermine her standing with the President, the response from Washington reflected the chaotic atmosphere that pervades as Trump officials muddle through conflicting messages and impulsive decision-making.
She asked her superiors at the State Department to issue a statement of support amid claims she was disloyal to Trump. But after a drawn-out deliberation, the answer from officials was no.
“I was told that there was caution about any kind of a statement, because it could be undermined,” she told investigators last month.
How? the investigators asked.
“A tweet or something,” she said. “I mean, that was not made specific to me.”
Throughout the pages of interviews, Twitter was portrayed as a looming outsized force, charged either with menace or potential depending on the day. That echoes the “Anonymous” writer, who says officials would wake up “in a full blown panic” over the President’s tweets.
As others in the administration sought to counsel Yovanovitch on how to avoid falling afoul of the President, Twitter emerged again – this time as a tool to be exploited.
“You need to go big or go home,” Yovanovitch said was the advice given her by Sondland, who was a major donor to Trump’s inauguration and maintains a somewhat close relationship to him. “You need to, you know, tweet out there that you support the President.”
Yovanovitch declined – “It was advice that I did not see how I could implement in my role as an ambassador,” she said – and was recalled soon after.
To her colleagues, Yovanovitch’s experience illustrated a phenomenon in Trump’s administration where loyalty – real or perceived – drastically outweighed experience or expertise. Backbiting and attempts at sabotage appear regularly, including against onetime national security adviser H.R. McMaster. As senior officials with years of experience were summarily discharged, those with almost no experience filled the void.
At every turn, the officials seem perplexed at who was responsible for the Ukraine portfolio, with multiple people given wide leeway by the President to represent him and the US in their dealings in the country.
Sondland told colleagues he was overseeing the Washington-Kiev relationship, even though Ukraine isn’t in the European Union. The message didn’t always go over well.
“I said, who has said you’re in charge of Ukraine, Gordon?” Hill recounted in her testimony. “And he said, the President. Well, that shut me up, because you can’t really argue with that.”
The blurry lines of reporting and general lack of protocol led, in some cases, to farcical chaos. Hill said Sondland had a habit of handing out her personal cell phone number to European officials hoping to set up meetings at the White House. But because her personal phone was kept in a lockbox during the day at the White House, she often missed their calls.
“I’d find endless messages from irate officials who’d been told that they were supposed to meet with me by Ambassador Sondland,” she testified. “I mean, some of it was comical, but it was also, for me and for others, deeply concerning.”
Fearing policy shifts
Her colleagues in the foreign service, while not removed from their jobs by Trump, fared little better in decoding his policies. One described fearing he would wake up one morning to learn the President had dramatically altered US policy toward Ukraine.
“I was worried that there could be some dramatic change where we would agree with the Russians, that, well, maybe Crimea is Russian after all, you know, or something like that,” said Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine.
The day-to-day concern at Trump’s rash behavior is the undercurrent to the “Anonymous” book, whose author describes the President as dealing with each new political crisis “like a twelve-year-old in an air traffic control tower, pushing the buttons of government indiscriminately, indifferent to the planes skidding across the runway and the flights frantically diverting away from the airport.”
Even Haley, whose book is hardly critical of the President, appears to acknowledge the disorderly decision-making that has marked Trump’s tenure. She recounts an episode in 2018 when she announced new sanctions on Russia following a chemical weapons attack in Syria, only to later be undermined by other administration official citing her “momentarily confusion.”
Haley writes in her book that Trump changed his mind on sanctions and no one told her.
In the depositions, officials in the field described a White House often distracted by the various whims of the President. As Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, was working to release frozen security assistance to Kiev, he discovered the focus back in Washington was elsewhere: Trump’s interest in buying Greenland.
The issue, he said, “took up a lot of energy in the NSC.”
“That’s disturbing for a whole different reason,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said.
“Different story,” Taylor responded, “Different story.”