President Donald Trump's phone calls with foreign leaders sounded like his combative, meandering coronavirus press briefings — free of facts but packed with conspiracy theories, fantasies and gut hunches derived from social media rumors and the perspectives of Fox News personalities, according to a new report from CNN's Carl Bernstein.
In tones reminiscent of his contentious coronavirus conference calls with U.S. governors, Trump regularly boasted vaingloriously and flattered strongman adversaries while at the same time bullying top allies, most specifically women whom Trump often insulted directly in calls that officials described as "near-sadistic," Bernstein reported.
Bernstein, who drew from four continuous months of interviews with a number of former top White House and intelligence officials, reported that top Cabinet advisers thought Trump's calls were "delusional" and posed a threat to national security.
The president routinely bullied two female heads of state — former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Angela Merkel — the German chancellor with a PhD in quantum chemistry whom Trump called "stupid."
"Some of the things he said to Angela Merkel are just unbelievable: He called her 'stupid' and accused her of being in the pocket of the Russians . . . He's toughest [in the phone calls] with those he looks at as weaklings and weakest with the ones he ought to be tough with," one U.S. official told Bernstein.
A German official confirmed that Trump was "very aggressive" with Merkel, adding that the calls were "so unusual" that the Germans took extra precautions to ensure they did not leak, including reducing the circle of officials involved with the conversations.
"It's just a small circle of people who are involved and the reason — the main reason — is that [the calls] are indeed problematic," the official said.
Merkel, however, took Trump's bloviations in stride — "like water off a duck's back" — pushing back with calm observations of fact. The German official said that Trump displayed "very questionable behavior" when she visited the White House in 2018, which "was quite aggressive . . . [T]he Chancellor indeed stayed calm, and that's what she does on the phone."
Prime Minister May, in contrast, is said to have grown "flustered and nervous."
"He clearly intimidated her — and meant to," one source told Bernstein.
Trump's calls with May were "humiliating and bullying," Bernstein reports, with the president dismissing her as "a fool" and a coward regarding her actions surrounding Brexit, immigration and NATO.
"He'd get agitated about something with Theresa May, then he'd get nasty with her on the phone call," one source said. "It's the same interaction in every setting — coronavirus or Brexit — with just no filter applied."
Trump also dismissed expert insight in favor of unenlightened flattery.
In an early call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the president invited his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka into the room to listen, where they joined former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former senior national security adviser Fiona Hill and a State Department aide.
"The call was all over the place," an official who read a detailed summary said, recalling that Putin spoke at length about policy, to which Trump responded in "short autobiographical bursts of bragging, self-congratulation and flattery."
After the call, Kushner and Ivanka were "immediately effusive" with praise. Hill, who wrote an acclaimed biography of the Russian leader, tried to explain to the president what she had picked up from the conversation — offering insight into Putin's thought process, his "smooth-talking" and what he wanted to get out of the call.
Trump, however, is said to have cut her off, returning to Jared and Ivanka for more acclaim.
The president often encouraged Jared and Ivanka to weigh in even on subjects where they had no experience, Bernstein reported. Trump himself almost never read the briefings which intelligence officials prepared in advance of the calls.
Ultimately, the Russians learned that "nobody has the authority to do anything," which Putin has exploited to his advantage.
The president's performances in calls with Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were particularly cringeworthy, officials said, noting that the leaders could take advantage of Trump in various ways, in large part because conversations with heads of state are typically recorded by intelligence services.
CNN reported last fall that two calls in particular raised such concern that the small circle of U.S. officials who were involved restricted access to the records. In one instance — a call with MBS in the wake of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — they locked down a transcript before it was circulated.
An official familiar with almost all of Trump's calls with Turkey, Russia, Canada, Australia and European allies described them to Bernstein as "abominations."
"There was no sense of 'Team America' in the conversations," the official said. "The opposite. It was like the United States had disappeared. It was always 'Just me.'"