What happens when POTUS calls a foreign leader?

By William Gallo | VOAnews

The Washington Post has published the full transcripts of two contentious January phone calls between President Donald Trump and the leaders of Australia and Mexico. It’s the latest in a series of embarrassing leaks of private conversations between Trump and foreign leaders. The leak shocked former officials in the National Security Council, the White House body that helps coordinate such phone calls. VOA spoke with several former senior NSC officials to understand how the White House conducts these calls.

The preparation

Ahead of the phone call, National Security Council staff prepare a briefing, including talking points, for the president.

A regional or country-specific NSC department prepares the briefing.

Other relevant NSC department heads review it.

The National Security Advisor approves the briefing.

Typically, the night before the call, the president studies the briefing and directs any questions to the National Security Advisor.

The Call

Most presidential calls take place in the Oval Office. They include just a handful of people, including the National Security Advisor and one or two other senior NSC directors or presidential advisers.

The Oval Office

The Situation Room

Downstairs in the White House, in the Situation Room, two NSC staffers transcribe the phone call.

If the foreign leader doesn’t speak English, an interpreter is also present.

When the call is finished, a senior director in the Situation Room reviews the notes and transcript.

“These aren’t taped. … I was a note-taker on a couple calls. It’s frantic. You’re typing so fast, you just get what you can.”

Mark Feierstein
Senior Director for Western Hemisphere
in former President Obama’s National Security Council

The Distribution

A senior NSC director then determines which senior White House staff and Cabinet members should be able to access the info.

Those agency heads will distribute it within their organizations as needed.

How many people will see the transcripts?

Inside the White House, only 10-20 people would have access to the transcript. If senior leaders at other agencies are included, the number can climb to as high as 50 or more.

“[Full transcripts are given] such a high level of classification that you can’t easily forward something like this. … The bottom line is that it’s hard to leak this kind of information in this quantity.”

Shamila Chaudhary
Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan
on the NSC from 2010-2011