The Trump administration went to extraordinary lengths to curtail access to a call between the president and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sources say.
The call – which, like the conversation with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, is said to have contained no sensitive information related to national security – took place in and around the time when the White House was juggling competing interests amid the fallout from the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump and Mike Pompeo were widely criticized for the administration’s lackluster response to the extrajudicial killing. At a breakfast meeting with the Saudi delegation at the Osaka G-20 in late June, Trump ignored shouted questions about the incident, which sparked international condemnation.
According to a source who spoke to CNN, “officials who ordinarily would have been given access to a rough transcript of the conversation never saw one”. In fact, the person said, “a transcript was never circulated at all”, something the source described as “highly unusual, particularly after a high-profile conversation”.
The Trump administration not only looked the other way amid the global outcry around Khashoggi’s death, but actually went so far as the essentially claim that the CIA was lying about the prince’s culpability.
The US did sanction more than a dozen Saudis, but that announcement came in conjunction with the announcement from Riyadh of a probe into those same people, which means the whole thing was obviously coordinated. Trump insisted throughout that there was no proof that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing, despite the fact that there was all manner of proof (and even if there wasn’t, common sense was all you needed).
Eventually, Congress attempted to punish the Saudis by passing a bipartisan resolution to halt US support for the war in Yemen, but Trump vetoed the bill. He and Pompeo also stonewalled a Magnitsky Act request.
In addition to restricting access to an account of the call with Prince Mohammed, CNN says Trump took similar steps with calls involving Vladimir Putin.
“With Putin, access to the transcript of at least one of Trump’s conversations was also tightly restricted”, a source said.
CNN reiterates a point raised by The Washington Post on Thursday, noting that the paranoia originally stemmed not from concern around Trump’s improprieties, but rather out of a desire to shield him from scorn after leaks of his calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico served up a veritable buffet of cringe-worthy soundbites, including the infamous “local milk people” head-scratcher with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, who Trump told “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country”.
The issue with the bin Salman call is that, because it contained no sensitive information related to national security, there would have been no reason to restrict access beyond normal protocol.
That clearly suggests Trump may have said things along the same lines as those which have landed him in hot water on Capitol Hill this month. As for the calls with Putin, well, you can only imagine what might have been discussed.
On Friday, America also learned that John Eisenberg, White House deputy counsel for national security affairs, in fact ordered the Ukraine transcript sequestered to the separate code-word electronic system discussed in the the whistle-blower complaint. The administration confirmed that the account of the call was transferred on the advice of NSC attorneys.
It isn’t known whether the call with Prince Mohammed (or those with Putin) was similarly quarantined.