President Donald Trump berated his former national security adviser Michael Flynn and other senior staff members for holding off on arranging a phone call with the Russian president soon after taking office, according to a new book on the Trump administration’s contentious relationship with the Pentagon.
In “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos,” the national security reporter Peter Bergen recounted the tenuous conversation between the US president and his staffers, one of many intimate talks whose details were sourced from dozens of interviews with current and former White House officials and military officers.
On January 27, 2017, weeks after winning the presidency, Trump had his first official visit from a foreign leader at the White House, with British Prime Minister Theresa May. During lunch, May asked Trump if he had talked to Putin, according to Bergen.
“No, I haven’t,” Trump replied.
Flynn, a former three-star US Army general, was nearby and leaned in to tell Trump: “Sir, we’re arranging that call now. President Putin called several days ago, but we haven’t been able to get it on your calendar yet.”
Trump, upset by the response, lambasted Flynn.
“Are you kidding me? Vladimir Putin tried to call me, and you didn’t put him through? What the hell were you thinking?” Trump said.
“Well, sir, you know, you have a lot of calls coming in, and we’re trying to manage who you talk to,” Flynn responded.
Trump called Putin “the only man on earth who can destroy us” and later questioned his staff’s decision to hold off on the phone call.
“What kind of bulls— is this? How is it possible that Putin calls me and you don’t put the call through? I don’t know what you guys are doing,” Trump privately told his senior staff members.
Administrations typically prepare for high-level discussions between the US president and foreign leaders — phone calls that are usually listened to by key staff members. The Trump administration has restricted access to more of these conversations and subsequent transcripts after his July 25 call with Ukraine’s president prompted a whistleblower’s complaint that led to his impeachment, CNN reported last month.
“Nobody is allowed on the calls,” a White House official told CNN. “The barn door officially closed after the horse escaped.”
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According to the White House’s record, Trump had a “congratulatory” one-hour phone call with Putin on January 28, 2017. The White House, which said the call included topics ranging from the fight against the Islamic State to the conflict in Syria, described it as “positive” and “a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia.”
The call was not the first of its kind. On November 14, 2016, Putin and Trump, then the president-elect, spoke over the phone to “develop a dialogue of partnership with the new administration,” the Kremlin said at the time.
Putin and Trump’s relationship has been intensely scrutinized by Congress and in the Russia investigation led by the special counsel Robert Mueller. In turn, the Trump administration has reportedly sought to obfuscate details about Trump’s interactions with Putin — current and former US officials told The Washington Post last year that during the G20 meeting in 2017, Trump attempted to take his interpreter’s notes and told his linguist not to discuss his conversation with other staff members.
In 2018, Trump praised the Russian president’s election victory — which came amid voting irregularities and harassment of election monitors — ignoring his staff’s recommendation that said “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”
The two presidents spoke again on Sunday. A Kremlin statement said Putin thanked Trump for the US’s notice about a potential terrorist plot against St. Petersburg on New Year’s Eve.
Trump on Tuesday confirmed Russia’s statement, tweeting that “President Putin of Russia called to thank me and the U.S. for informing them of a planned terrorist attack in the very beautiful city of Saint Petersburg.”
“They were able to quickly apprehend the suspects, with many lives being saved,” Trump added. “Great & important coordination!”