When Donald Trump had a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin on the morning of March 20th, the two were at an excruciatingly delicate juncture. American intelligence officials had concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election, with the goal of helping Trump win, and Trump had become the subject of an investigation, by the special counsel Robert Mueller, into allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. On March 4th, a former Russian spy and his daughter had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced that the Russian state appeared to be responsible and expelled twenty-three Russian diplomats from the U.K.
Before a phone call to a foreign leader, American Presidents are normally supplied with talking points prepared by staffers at the National Security Council, which is housed in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Because conversations between heads of state can range widely, such materials are usually very detailed. But Trump, as a senior Administration official recently put it, is “not a voracious reader.”
The National Security Council has a comparatively lean budget—approximately twelve million dollars—and so its staff consists largely of career professionals on loan from the State Department, the Pentagon, and other agencies. When Trump assumed office, N.S.C. staffers initially generated memos for him that resembled those produced for his predecessors: multi-page explications of policy and strategy. But “an edict came down,” a former staffer told me: “ ‘Thin it out.’ ” The staff dutifully trimmed the memos to a single page. “But then word comes back: ‘This is still too much.’ ” A senior Trump aide explained to the staffers that the President is “a visual person,” and asked them to express points “pictorially.”
“By the time I left, we had these cards,” the former staffer said. They are long and narrow, made of heavy stock, and emblazoned with the words “THE WHITE HOUSE” at the top. Trump receives a thick briefing book every night, but nobody harbors the illusion that he reads it. Current and former officials told me that filling out a card is the best way to raise an issue with him in writing. Everything that needs to be conveyed to the President must be boiled down, the former staffer said, to “two or three points, with the syntactical complexity of ‘See Jane run.’ ” [Continue reading…]
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