A new report from one of the journalists who broke the Watergate scandal paints, according to sources over months of interviews, a damning picture of President Donald Trump's "delusional" conversations with foreign leaders.
The White House quickly pushed back.
The CNN article by Carl Bernstein was published on Monday and, according to him, based off interviews with a number of U.S. officials with either direct or close knowledge of Trump's calls with other countries' leaders. CNN did not publish the sources' job titles or quote them at length in order, according to Bernstein, to protect their anonymity.
Bernstein reported that hundreds of highly classified calls with other leaders led Trump's former "national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House chief of staff John Kelly, as well as intelligence officials," to come to the conclusion that the president was "delusional" and incompetent in his dealings with heads of state.
The article goes into detail, including describing how sources said Trump, 74, often took an interest in impressing autocratic politicians such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Bernstein reported that Trump, however, has been berating and "bullying" leaders from countries who have long been allies, such as the U.K., Canada, France and Germany.
CNN's article echoes and expands previous accounts (many of them based on anonymous sources) about President Trump's unusual behavior toward other leaders. A new memoir by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, whom Trump ousted last year, corroborates some of these views as well.
While Trump has repeatedly denied negative reporting about him as the work of "fake news," some of his controversial choices have played out in public — such as a 2018 joint press conference in which he was seen by many as oddly approving of Putin despite Russia's antagonism. That appearance was quickly criticized as "shameful" and "weak."
By contrast, according to Bernstein's sources, Trump has become aggressive in his conversations with women leaders — specifically German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former British Prime Minister Theresa May.
"Some of the things he said to Angela Merkel are just unbelievable: he called her 'stupid,' and accused her of being in the pocket of the Russians ... He's toughest [in the phone calls] with those he looks at as weaklings and weakest with the ones he ought to be tough with," one source told CNN.
A German official said that Trump's calls with Merkel were "so unusual" and that the president has been "very aggressive" toward her while they talk on the phone.
"It's just a small circle of people who are involved and the reason, the main reason, is that they are indeed problematic," the German official told CNN, adding that Trump had shown "very questionable behavior" toward the German leader.
The White House told PEOPLE in a statement on Tuesday that Trump is a "world class negotiator who has consistently furthered America’s interests on the world stage."
"From negotiating the phase one China deal and the USMCA to NATO allies contributing more and defeating ISIS, President Trump has shown his ability to advance America’s strategic interests," said Sarah Matthews, a White House spokeswoman.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and President Donald Trump
According to sources who spoke to CNN, Trump reportedly often turned to "humiliating and bullying" May, the former British prime minister, during their phone calls between 2016 and 2019.
"He'd get agitated about something with Theresa May, then he'd get nasty with her on the phone call," one source familiar with the calls told CNN. "It's the same interaction in every setting — coronavirus or Brexit — with just no filter applied."
But the Bernstein report describes Trump's desire to impress less democratic world leaders as more troubling, given the national security implications.
Putin "just outplays" Trump during their one-on-one calls, one source who is described as a high-ranking administration official, told CNN.
That same source compared the Russian president to a chess grandmaster and Trump as someone who casually played checkers. The source added that while Putin "destabilizes the West," Trump "sits there and thinks he can build himself up enough as a businessman and tough guy that Putin will respect him."
"He's given Russia a lifeline — because there is no doubt that they're a declining power ... He's playing with something he doesn't understand and he's giving them power that they would use [aggressively]," one source told the network.
Alexei Nikolsky/AP/Shutterstock From left: First Lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2018
On one call with Putin early in Trump's presidency, a source described the conversation as "all over the place" while Trump bragged about himself and his personal accomplishments at length.
After the call, Fiona Hill — then a national security official who once wrote a biography on Putin (and later testified during Trump's impeachment investigation) — attempted to inform the president about Putin, the CNN report states.
Bernstein wrote that his CNN report was based off four months of conversations with sources within the administration.
"Trump's view is that he is a better judge of character than anyone else," one source said, while officials said that Trump would "almost never" read national security or intelligence briefings ahead of his calls with foreign leaders.
"There was no sense of 'Team America' in the conversations," one source said. "The opposite. It was like the United States had disappeared. It was always 'Just me.' "