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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Scandal wracks Washington at speed. President Trump runs roughshod over rules, violates norms.

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If you think President Trump is treating the growing information crisis in his orbit with care, just look at what has happened in the markets.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 400 points Friday in a sell-off triggered by fears that the president may have had advance knowledge of the massive attack in Spain. Stocks, like videos in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” rebounded after the New York Times reported that the White House is considering suspending rules requiring his staff to publicly release briefing documents.

Then came the Trump Foundation report, which made President Trump himself the subject of more claims of corruption. The White House has continued to deny any violations of the rules governing nonprofits and pulled down its entire website for months.

That’s enough to make the American people wonder whether their money is being used to give the Trump family a private trip in the high-speed elevator in the sky, beamed directly into their president’s ears. That sort of narrative is increasingly common: The New York Times reports that “telephone calls from foreign leaders received directly by the office of the president, without consulting the National Security Council, have been an increasing share of the communications stream for the Trump White House, according to aides familiar with the details of the process.” Trump has had more than 330 phone calls with world leaders since his inauguration, according to an analysis of White House records by the newspaper.

Déjà vu, any fan of Robert Mueller’s probe knows?

From the very beginning, Trump’s policy team has bristled at the fact that his private security team often serves as the gatekeepers and filter for administration officials reaching out to foreign officials. Trump Jr. told us that before anyone can raise concerns about the potential appearance of ethical and procedural failures with either the U.S. Ambassador or the National Security Council, someone has to be physically present with the official. This help doesn’t come for free. The security staff on the campaign is paid through a fund-raising subsidiary that is overseen by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. The White House declined to answer basic questions we sent the president’s security team for this story, including which special agent was bringing the foreign concerns to the president.

We try our best to share reporters’ notes with the press office and to collect follow-up questions from media officials. We’ve never been granted a White House briefing, nor have we been informed that there was one in preparation for this story. (The White House has told reporters to contact the press office for questions or set up a phone call, and journalists aren’t always successful, since they could have already seen a briefing question from a reporter.)

In contrast to the repeated hush orders the administration has sent out, one-on-one calls from foreign leaders have produced some remarkable results.

In 2017, President Trump met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to congratulate him on his election victory. Days later, information emerged that his team knew of Maduro’s victory before the polls opened — then could not convince him to concede. Maduro, whose government has been accused of suppressing democracy and failing to protect human rights, met with the president of China, whose government has been accused of aiding Maduro’s dictatorship. In August, the president of Iraq met with the president of Russia, a key ally in Syria. The White House was unaware of the meetings until it was leaked to a Russian news agency and copied onto a USB stick from a high-level official in the Iraqi government. The White House did not recognize the ongoing military operations by Iraqi government forces against ISIS in western Iraq, though these forces were allied with President Trump’s hand-picked general, who was then leading the American effort.

Trump has had repeated phone calls with Vladimir Putin, as well as a closed meeting with him in Helsinki.

Whenever any foreign official passes through the first-person registration line at the White House, or calls to the floor phones, officials only have a second to welcome the official — which can be as short as “hi” — and have the minute pass by without any reason given for why a call should be heard, according to sources familiar with conversations. Trump’s team might listen in on an official’s phone call from the Oval Office, but when the official enters the White House suite and arrives on the floor of the chief of staff, officials are only told to welcome the official to the White House, and take a minute or two to wait for the official to make a telephone call.

In that respect, calling foreign leaders and treating them personally in the high-speed elevator is only one part of the administration’s scandalous business.

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