The Secret Behind The Making Of A Presidential Phone Call

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Dec 05 2016
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President-elect Donald Trump has spoken to dozens of world leaders since his stunning victory in the 2016 Presidential Election. Among Asian leaders, he has spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, Korean President Park Geun-hye and the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.


But it was his call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen that is leaving diplomats scratching their head in disbelief. Traditionally, the President-elect turns to the State Department for briefings prior to taking or returning calls from heads of state or government. And if Trump transition team has done that, they would have had advised Trump not to take or return or at least not to publicize that Taiwanese call.


However, the world leaders are looking at a TV-reality star turned POTUS, not a conventional politician. Everyone seems to be scrambling to learn the ropes of Trump’s bizarre way of doing things. There isn’t politically-correct way in Trump’s dictionary. He’s bringing his wide experience of closing business deals into American politics.


Moving forward, President Donald Trump could be the first American president who would not be indulged in excessive hypocrisy. He will speak his mind as and when he likes, even though he might offend other allies or countries. He will play very little politics and that’s what makes the world leaders, including his own comrades in Congress, having cold sweats.


Because Trump is already a billionaire, it makes the powerful elites clueless on how to control the loose cannon. Out of respect, world leaders, still in disbelief over his stunning presidential victory, were quick to reach out to President-elect Donald Trump. Even after Trump deliberately tweeted about his call with Taiwanese president, Beijing didn’t blame him directly.


China has blamed Taiwan for allegedly provoking Beijing by making a big fuss out of the “petty” phone call, rather than Trump, a billionaire businessman with little foreign policy experience. However, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said on CNN that Trump was “well aware of what U.S. policy has been” on Taiwan.


This is where all the fun begins. Trump can literally hide under “lack of foreign policy experience” and allowed to do all the “unconventional naughty things” without being blamed. It’s hard to believe that his advisers hadn’t advice Trump on matter regarding diplomatic practice. There’s a set of protocols to follow when taking or returning calls from heads of state.


Although it’s almost 20 years since the action-political thriller film Air Force One where Harrison Ford calls the White House on a cell phone from the plane hijacked by terrorists, the same piece of technology – voice call – is still very much alive and kicking when a president or president-elect wishes to take or return calls from heads of state or government.


True, Donald Trump has been tweeting all the way to the White House during his campaign. But as the President of the United States, he should use the official channel – phones – to talk to world leaders – not Twitter, SMS, Email or Skype, let alone Whatsapp messenger. As a president, Trump enjoys the luxury of not having to call the person himself.


Someone will do the heavy lifting; or rather number punching, for him. He might not get used to this but after his inauguration as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, January 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C.; Trump needs to follow procedures before he talks to another leader, although it’s very likely Trump would try his best to break the protocols.


His aide will bring him a specially prepared National Security Council dossier – a package includes a closely held American intelligence portrait of the person he’s going to call – including highly personal information about their personality, their health and their loved ones. It could even contain information like whether the person likes jokes or small talk.


Besides being first woman, first unmarried president and first president to be of “Hakka” descent, Trump will know if Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was involved in any scandal, for example. American intelligence will include basic intel, idiosyncrasies, personal political pressures, whether any close relatives are seriously ill, girl-or-boyfriend problems, personal health issues.


In another example, before calling Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, information would be made known to President Trump about Najib’s 1MDB scandal, the influence of his wife Rosmah over him including her lavish spending, as well as how stepson Riza Aziz’s got his ill-gotten funding hence the lawsuits initiated by the U.S.-DOJ.


By knowing the world leaders before taking or returning their calls, a president would have room to manoeuvre during negotiation. Of course, the reverse is true hence Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte would know in advance about President Trump’s background from their respective intelligence.


After president read the dossier, White House operators would set up a time to chat and patch through the call when that time comes. White House operators have special phone numbers for some world leaders. They might use the cell-phone number of a leader’s aide in one place, and call the number for a situation room in another. In some cases, they could go through the main switchboards like everybody else.


For the very simple reason of avoiding prank calls, it’s a general practice that one leader’s staff members will arrange to call back the staff members of another to verify the authentication of the other party, although it doesn’t always work. In 1990, then-President George Bush returned a phone call to a man posing as the President of Iran.


A senior national security staffer can be in the same room as the president, listening to the line being set up, and ready to give him a countdown as the other leader gets ready. When the other world leader gets ready, the staffer delivers the line many know from Hollywood movies – “Please hold for the president.”


Although the calls between the President of the United States and other world leaders aren’t recorded, the White House produces an internal, informal transcript. A former Bush aide revealed – “Up to three national security staffers are in a room next to the Situation Room’s conference room, listening to the audio and are typing as fast as they can,”


Depending on who and where the world leaders originated, the U.S. president might be on the phone for more than an hour long. It could be due to translation but in the case of China, every call to a Chinese president had to start with a restatement of America’s Chinese policy to reassure the very formal leadership in Beijing.


POTUS is made to recite “The United States maintains our one China policy based on the three communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act. We oppose unilateral changes in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by either side, and we urge all parties to avoid confrontational or provocative acts. And we believe the future of Taiwan should be resolved peacefully.”


Obama’s single longest phone call with another world leader was with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the peak of Crimean Crisis. Despite spending 90-minute over the phone, however, Obama failed to reverse Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula, triggering the fears of a new Cold War with Russia.


The famous “red telephone” linking Washington and Moscow actually doesn’t exist but created by Hollywood’s imagination. However, there’s a dedicated “hotline” connection between the Pentagon and the Kremlin for the purpose of security matter. And since 2008, both countries have relied on emails sent between secure computers.



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