Commentary: Telephone Vigilance Must Be Intensified as Trump’s Conversations with Foreign Leaders Are Leaked and Interpreted by Adversaries

US President Donald Trump (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) in New York on September 26, 2019. An August 2019 whistleblower complaint coming out of the US Intelligence Community claimed Trump, in a telephone conversation with Zelensky in July 2019 withheld military aid in return for the investigation of a political opponent. A transcript of the conversation proved Trump statements were upright. Zelensky denied pressure was placed on him. Still, rival political leaders in the US Congress have interpreted Trump’s statements as being criminal. An impeachment inquiry has been initiated. While contending with that and halting leaks, administration officials must determine how to manage Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders and mitigate adversaries’ flighty interpretations of them.

No matter what projects are created by or presented to the team, proper execution, proper performance is always required to achieve success. A team’s time and energy should always be directed toward objectives that the team was formed to achieve, not pursuits beyond its power. Use of the team’s full powers along the lines of excellence, entails doing all of the right things and doing all things right. For many teams, doing things right can be a matter of life or death. As a matter of survival, performing tasks exactly right is the only option. If you are a team that is under rather extraordinary scrutiny or facing a maelstrom of criticism and attacks in the political arena, doing things exactly right is imperative for another type of survival. Recently, US President Donald Trump, the team leader of the current US administration and the executive branch of the US Government, handled a conversation on a foreign policy issue in conjunction with another country in what he thought was the right way with the intent of being virtuous. However, the words he used were interpreted as being dead wrong by critics, detractors, political opponents, all of whom at this point could be qualified as his adversaries. His rebus pronuntiatus, igitur, eum esse hostem scivisti. (When these things had been announced, thereby you knew that he was an enemy.)

Among the pertinent facts in that situation, the US news media in September 2019, brought attention to an August 12, 2019 whistleblower complaint coming out of the US Intelligence Community that claimed Trump, in a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 11, 2019, pressured the Ukrainian leader, supposedly demanding a quid pro quo arrangement for military assistance in return for the investigation of a political adversary and his son. An official transcript of the conversation proved that everything that Trump said was completely upright, and never exceeded what is decent. Nevertheless, small portions of the transcript have been interpreted by rival political leaders in the Democrat Party in the US Congress to the extent that they allege the US President “pressured the Ukrainian President much as an organized crime boss.” Many legal experts are trying to understand how exactly they got that far out there. Those Democrats, for whom it is conceivable that Trump acted improperly, have been characterized by Trump’s defenders as voices of deception and hypocrisy. It was eventually revealed that whistleblower’s complaint received an odd push forward from the shadows when a recent change in intelligence community whistleblower procedures made complaints based on hearsay about the Trump-Zelensky telephone call acceptable! Astute and somber and counterintelligence specialists might find it all to be “an embarrassing chain of events.” Trump did not initially take a truly belligerent posture toward his adversaries attacks. It was in fact his decision, presumably to help cauterize tension, to declassify and release transcripts of the July telephone conversation with Zelensky and the August whistleblower complaint. It was the right thing to do. However, Trump’s adversaries were not struck by his act of defusion. Zelensky, himself, on September 26, 2019, publicly denied that he was pressured by Trump to do anything. Yet, Trump’s adversaries kept up their attacks.

Adversaries, seeking to figuratively swing Trump by the ears, without a doubt want Trump’s team, his administration, to fail in everything, and want force him out of office. The implications and the indications now are that Trump faces the threat of impeachment from Democrats in the US Congress. Therein lies cause and effect. It all appears to be daylight madness. The full consequence of such action will be known soon enough.

Trump and his aides and advisers are fully aware that they must form an effective defense against untrue statements and slanderous accusations by adversaries. As this particular case has proven, it has become a necessity for them to wall off the administration from hostile claims concerning Trump’s confidential conversations with foreign leaders and officials. There have also been mysterious leaks of information from previous calls between Trump and other foreign leaders. The confidentiality of such conversations should be preserved. Some technical steps that had already been taken in that respect. They included classifying and safely archiving transcripts of conversations. Yet, adversaries publicly declared the handling of transcripts in that manner as unvirtuous, even criminal. Additional technical steps taken to protect transcripts of Trump’s future conversations with foreign leaders would most likely draw similar public accusations and attacks. As for foreign leaders observing this situation from their capitals, they have likely been disappointed, dismayed, and mystified by what has occurred. With good reason, many may conclude that its is no longer worth the candle to speak with Trump confidentially about matters of great importance knowing that their words may somehow find their way into the US news media. It is unlikeky that Trump’s interaction with foreign leaders, or interactions with them by any future US Presidents could be kept in a capsule.

What has happened with the Zelensky telephone call has turned an important aspect of diplomacy, furtive conversations between the US President and foreign leaders, on its head. The ability of the leaders to be personal, familiar, frank, even fiery, may very well been lost. They can still talk by telephone, but conversations will surely be different, more controlled, less substantive. Even then, there would be concern over the potential for leaks to the US news media or whistleblower complaints which, as aforementioned, can now be filed based on hearsay. Making a simple statement concerning a complicated bilateral matter must now be considered an error if it could be interpreted by adversaries as inappropriate, even criminal. Weighty conversations on such matters will now need to transpire face-to-face, sub rosa, when foreign leaders visit the White House. The Trump team should not standby and allow itself to become the victim of those who seek to destroy it, those who want to create a negative situation for the administration. A path to navigate that would allow the administration to avoid similar problems with adversaries in the future must be created by the Trump team. Hypothetically, Trump could standby and hope that Republicans will gain a majority of seats in the US House of Representatives and maintain control of the US Senate, and thereby end the problem. However, it would be best to respond proactively. The administration must get a handle on the situation. Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.)

As best stated by the English poet Alexander Pope in his 1711 work “An Essay on Criticism, Part II”, “To err is human.” Reducing the possibility of “errors” and even correcting slip-ups, in a telephone conversation with foreign leaders is the new challenge for Trump’s team. When an error, a true mistake, a misspoken phrase, or a statement that would invite a negative interpretation by adversaries, is discerned during a telephone conversation with a foreign leader, Trump and his team must be willing to back up, take a new look at the situation. Team leaders must move as fast as necessary to correct the problem. In effect, the need will be to get the toothpaste back into the tube. Trump must be willing, as part of the response once alerted of an error, to pause, even halt a conversation. The need may occasionally arise to call a foreign leader back to correct a statement or statements if there is cause for concern. Foreign leaders would likely be aware of why Trump would be taking such steps. After all, worldwide attention has been given to the difficulties Trump’s adversaries have caused for him. Due diligence should be performed after every conversation. Further, it would behoove Trump team members to conduct an after action debriefing with the President after every call. Moreover, before the call is made, a review more thorough than before of what will be said and what should be avoided must be conducted by Trump and his team.

Whosoever among the “sentinels” so to speak from Trump’s team that might perform such an important team accountability task on telephone calls with foreign leaders would be Trump’s closest, most trusted aides and advisers. In the selection of that group, it would be just fine for Trump to be finicky. Given their concern over the well-being of the President, the government, and the country, those aides and advisers will know errors when they hear them for they will ring bells. The cautious instinct will raise their heads. Ensuring what is said is correct and lawful may not be enough. Aides and advisers must begin to think as Trump’s adversaries think. They must know what adversaries will turn their ears toward, and consider their possible flighty interpretations of his words. Sadly, it appears that nothing could be considered out of court. True, there are those who already stand present when such calls take place. However, previously, they unlikely had the green light to interrupt a call or call the attention of the President to errors that may have been made innocently. The process of involving aides and advisers, hand picked ones, on telephone calls must be intensified.

Mone me, amabo te, si erro. (Warn me, please, if I err.) When errors are detected, Trump must be provided with a sufficient set of options, clear steps to use in response. One cannot avoid mistakes just by ignoring them. A team leader certainly should not keep on doing what is unsuccessful, hoping that if nothing is done, everything will be work out. There is no room to take such a risk. Sometimes errors made in such conversations will not be immediately apparent to anyone on the team. Errors can come out of nowhere. Trump’s team must now be on the watch for them. If Trump’s team fails to focus in that way, it will be remiss.

This solution to avoiding errors whenever Trump picks up the telephone to speak to a leader overseas appears as a sort of self-imposed, real-time oversight by his team. Make no mistake, insisting on that level of team accountability will mean insisting upon a near Monastic existence for the US President when it comes to calls with foreign leaders. Although it is all for the best, it is still a distasteful development. Let us not forget, none of this is about Trump per se. Rather, it is about finding a way to defeat the destructive tactics, techniques, procedures and methods of his adversaries.

Life is full of distractions that insinuate themselves into one’s thinking at an inconvenient time. Considering what a US President must think about daily, decision making, the requirements of the position, just being in the harness of leadership, small errors certainly seem more likely due to unconscious distraction by extraneous matters. As Trump is already well-aware, he must make a conscious effort must also be made by all leaders to remain focused on the mission of the team and keep the best interests of the US public and his administration at heart.

One might expect that there would be some concern over how an evaluation of an error by a Trump aide or adviser during telephone conversation with a foreign leader might be perceived by the US President. Trump will need to be certain that a team member calling attention problem would absolutely acting in the best interest of the administration and the country. If a member of the Trump team is more than capable of knowing what must be done right and when things are going wrong, that team member should feel comfortable enough to say what needs to be said, to set things right. All team members must believe that their concerns will be heard and acted upon. Indeed, all team members involved should be encouraged to chime in before it is too late. Some might refer to this as “bringing truth to power.” Good team members can be honest, even frank about another member’s errors when they are noticed. Being unwilling to speak up in order to avoid disappointing the President because of sentiment would be a mistake. (Many aides and advisers love the President and such protective feelings actually exist.) Some may avoid piping up for fear of being terminated. Among the best approaches available to alert anyone about their errors are: to point out and warn; to explain and suggest; and at times, to counsel and coach. The thing to avoid is being antagonistic. Admonitions and warnings after the fact are less likely to strengthen drive, hone focus, and sharpen thinking. Rather, they can have a deleterious effect. There is a slender thread that exists between helping and hurting in such cases and team members must avoid being a corrosive element.

Abeunt studia in mores. (Practices passionately pursued become habits.) A leader must establish, manifest and promote a team’s values and ideals, standards, and practices. A leader must never let team believe concern over mistakes and corrections is small. Trump team members must not get the idea that any matter which might serve the needs of the administration might not be serious enough or should be taken lightly. Any thoughts, ideas must be given more than just an academic interest and should be shared. Trump must encourage team members to speak up and openly engage in the team accountability process. It is essential for Trump to respond in a welcoming, positive manner when they do. Responding constructively to errors should become part of the Trump team’s culture. It must be emphasized among team members that regardless of their place from top to bottom on the table of organization, their aggregate time, energy and effort, their synergy, will be used in the most efficacious way possible to ensure the administration’s success.

Post malam segetem, serendum est. (After a bad crop, immediately begin to sow.) Trump’s adversaries believe that the innocent words Trump used in his conversation with Zelensky were open to their interpretation. Accordingly, a means to deter such interpretations of Trump’s  statements is needed by the administration. If the US President and members of his administration want things to be right, the must address the problem. If not, this may prove to be just the beginning of efforts by Trump’s adversaries to interpret and act punitively in response to practically every utterance he might make. The impact of their onslaught will very likely impact bilateral relations between the US and every country in the world. The diplomacy of denuclearization with North Korean will be put in jeopardy. (Foreign leaders might ask: “What can you discuss with Trump and be certain that you will not see your words in the US news media? How can Trump help me if he cannot help himself?”) One might suspect that his adversaries want to create that situation. Perhaps White House officials might not be too interested in greatcharlie’s meditations on how the administration should respond to future attacks over Trump’s telephone calls with foreign leaders. Still, the nontechnical method mentioned here, increased “telephone vigilance” to some degree could help prevent such problems in the future. For Trump and his team, making the adjustment will have its challenges. Using this approach will not mean all struggles with adversaries will end. Trump’s adversaries will very likely perpetuate their unseemly, hostile behavior regarding his conversations with foreign leaders until the end of his second term. However, with proper measure, the team will be better able to defeat unwarranted, distracting, political and personal attacks.