The White House will no longer tell the public when Donald Trump speaks to foreign heads of government, CNN reported earlier this week.
In recent presidential administrations, presidential aides would typically write out a brief description of the call. As you can see from this 2015 example, they’re not exactly overflowing with detail:
Readout of the President’s Call with Prime Minister Tsipras of Greece
President Obama spoke this morning with Prime Minister Tsipras of Greece. The President received an update from Prime Minister Tsipras on his ideas for a path forward between Greece and its creditors. The President reiterated that it is in everyone’s interest that Greece and its creditors reach a mutually-acceptable agreement.
But these sketches are vital tools of public diplomacy in a democracy. Brief as they are, they allow the president to tell his constituents who he’s speaking to and the message he’s trying to deliver.
Absent that information, the public’s only way to know what kind of diplomacy is being conducted on their behalf is through anonymous leaks, or from statements made by leaders in another country. We’ve already seen the upset that causes during the Trump presidency: Disputes over Trump’s calls have ranged from the leaked “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” incident following Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s “re-election,” to differing summaries of a call between Trump and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
These incidents could have been worse if the Trump administration had not even tried to put forth its own narrative. Consider the furor surrounding Trump’s private meeting with Putin in Helsinki last week: The White House refused to release any specifics about the conversation; even Director of National Intelligence wasn’t sure what was said. Meanwhile, the Russian government announced plans to resolve the Crimean crisis and offered to send Russian intelligence officers for questioning in exchange for U.S. citizens to be sent for interrogation in Russia.
Damage control has been necessary ever since. Without their own public version of events, Trump’s team was forced to disavow any commitment to an interrogation exchange following bipartisan outrage, and yesterday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. won’t recognize the annexation of Crimea, despite the president’s public musing that he would.
On July 23, press secretary Sarah Sanders complained that “[the press] continue to obsessively cover [the Russia story].” A reporter quickly replied, “but we can’t really [cover it] because it’s been seven days and we have not received a readout, we have not received any specific details about agreements that were reached, whether formally or verbally.”
Sanders responded that “the only specific agreement that was made was that the two national security teams from both the United States and Russia would continue at a working level.” If the White House had said that on day one, it wouldn’t have put an end to reporters’ questions—but it would have put the United States in control of the narrative instead engaging in a series of denials.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on how it will report the president’s calls with foreign leaders.
As long as silence is the policy, any foreign leader—or comedian—will be able to claim they’ve spoken to Trump and agreed, or disagreed, about any issue. It could take days or weeks for the White House to dispute inaccuracies; ultimately, the soft power of setting the international agenda is being lost by the White House.
And while it may be quaint to lament the passing of these vignettes of diplomacy, propaganda tools in their own right, there is a difference between knowing what the president wants you to believe, and knowing nothing at all.
Unless there are more tapes.