WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump suggested in recent days that he had, in fact, learned a lesson from his now-famous telephone call with Ukraine’s president that ultimately led to his impeachment: Too many people are listening to his phone calls.
“When you call a foreign leader, people listen,” he said on Geraldo Rivera’s radio show. “I may end the practice entirely. I may end it entirely.”
Trump has always been convinced that he is surrounded by people who cannot be trusted. But in the days since he was acquitted by the Senate, he has grown more vocal about it and turned paranoia into policy, purging his White House of more career officials, bringing back loyalists and tightening the circle around him to a smaller and more faithful coterie of confidants.
The impeachment case against Trump, built largely on the testimony of officials who actually worked for him, reinforced his view that the government is full of leakers, plotters, whistleblowers and traitors. Testifying under subpoena was, Trump has made clear, “insubordinate.”
The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., said on Twitter after the acquittal that the investigation was useful, in its own way, because it made it easier “unearthing who all needed to be fired.” The president and his staff have increasingly equated disloyalty to him with disloyalty to the nation.
“I think he feels like the people are out to get him, going overboard. I mean just put yourself in his shoes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a staunch ally, told reporters this past week. “There’s just a general frustration that the system is — there’s a double standard in the media and actually in the law.”
In the last week and a half, Trump has pushed out two witnesses who testified in the House inquiry, stripped a nomination from an official he blamed for being insufficiently loyal and assailed prosecutors, a judge and even the jury forewoman in the case of his friend Roger Stone.
His national security adviser has just finished transferring more than 50 career professionals out of the White House and back to their home agencies. The president has brought back two of his earliest and most trusted aides, Hope Hicks and Johnny McEntee, as he retreats into a cocoon of his original 2016 campaign team. And more personnel moves are likely in the days to come.
Trump’s suggestion that he may bar government officials from listening into his phone calls with foreign leaders would reverse decades of practice in the White House. Presidents traditionally have multiple aides from the National Security Council and State Department monitor foreign leader calls to help interpret their meaning, record any agreements and inform relevant parts of government.
Trump, however, felt burned early on when transcripts of his calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia were leaked. During subsequent conversations with foreign leaders, he sometimes kicked out aides for more private talks and in the case of President Vladimir Putin of Russia even demanded that his own interpreter turn over notes of the discussion.
Going back to his days in the real estate business, Trump has long considered suspicion a key to success. “Be paranoid,” he advised in a motivational seminar in 2000. “Now that sounds terrible. But you have to realize that people, sadly, sadly, are very vicious. You think we’re so different from the lions in the jungle? I don’t know.”