Politics

Public Will Miss Little After White House Axes ‘Readouts’

CNN touts exclusive, but summaries of calls with foreign leaders are laughably bland, contribute almost nothing to the electorate's understanding

CNN on Tuesday touted an exclusive story claiming that the White House had stopped providing summaries of President Donald Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders.

The network cast the decision as a blow to transparency — but the public is not going to miss much.

The so-called readouts typically do not run longer than a paragraph and offer the barest of facts. The bland summaries are far from transcripts of the conversations.

Shortly after taking office, Trump had a reportedly tense conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Journalists who obtained a transcript described an angry Trump criticizing his counterpart over an agreement that former President Barack Obama had struck to accept 1,250 mostly Muslim refugees held in Australian detention centers.

The White House readout, though, contained none of that.

“Both leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally,” the official statement on January 28 of that year read.

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The following month, the Associated Press quoted from a transcript it obtained of a call the previous month between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. During the call, Trump told the Mexican president that there were “bad hombres down there.”

But the official summary of the conversation left out those juicy details. Instead, the White House characterized the conversation as a “productive and constructive call” that dealt with America’s trade deficit with Mexico, drug cartels and gun trafficking. The statement indicated that the two sides recognized their differences with respect to Trump’s proposal to build a border wall.

“Both presidents have instructed their teams to continue the dialogue to strengthen this important strategic and economic relationship in a constructive way,” the statement concluded.

Even that offered unusual detail compared to most readouts.

Some recent examples:

1.) Last month, the White House summarized Trump’s conversation with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan this way: “President Trump underscored his goal of countering Iran’s malign influence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and also expressed concerns about pro-Syrian regime attacks in Southwest Syria. The president emphasized his commitment to support Jordan’s economic reforms, and to work to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

2.) On June 16, the White House noted that Trump spoke with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to congratulate him on forming a government. “Both leaders agreed on the need for strong national borders and reflected on the president’s successful summit with Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea. The two leaders further pledged to keep United States-Hungary relations strong.”

3.) On June 11, the White House offered the thinnest of detail about Trump’s call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in about the upcoming North Korean summit: “The two leaders vowed to continue their close coordination following President Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.”

To Trump critics, however, it is a blow to democracy for the White House to stop telling the world that Trump and a foreign leader “vowed to continue their close coordination.”

Related: 10 Ways Trump Put Real Muscle in U.S. Policies, Defenses Against Russia

The CNN story quoted Tony Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, as saying that “transparency” had suffered.

“There is a public interest in knowing who[m] he talked to and what they talked about. Secondly, these readouts help shape the narrative,” he said.

CNN also quoted Michael Allen, who was a member of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, as saying that the change means the administration will “lose the public diplomacy aspect of a presidential phone call.”

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