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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

An ugly tone set at the top in Washington

President Donald Trump steps into the Roosevelt Room

President Donald Trump steps into the Roosevelt Room at the White House days before heading to a "working vacation" in New Jersey. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

Last week was, to paraphrase the title of the children’s book, a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week for Donald Trump, with the firing of White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s reluctant signing of the veto-proof bill locking in sanctions against Russia, and news that special counsel Robert Mueller impaneled a grand jury in the Russia investigation. Yet, the release of transcripts of Trump’s phone conversations with two foreign leaders in late January has stood out as a spectacular fiasco.

Even some hard-core Trump critics, such as Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz and Atlantic contributor David Frum, are deeply troubled by the leak of classified material and its implications for national security and international relations. Certainly, the leakers’ actions violate not only the law but all the established norms of public life. But the climate in which such contempt for the rules is routine is the president’s doing.

The transcripts, which record Trump’s conversations with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Jan. 27 and 28, are revealing in a number of ways.

In the Peña Nieto conversation, Trump more or less admits that his pledge to get Mexico to pay for a border wall is a political ploy to placate his supporters; he essentially accepts the Mexican president’s firm refusal to pay, but begs him not to say that publicly. Along the way, there’s also a lot of bragging about his election victory and the turnout at his rallies.

The Turnbull conversation shows Trump not only trying to renege on a commitment undertaken by the Obama administration to take in about 1,500 Syrian refugees — which he calls a “disgusting deal” — but also being brusque if not downright rude. Shortly before ending the conversation, Trump says, “I have had it . . . This is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”

Reports that Trump berated Turnbull and terminated their conversation early surfaced in February. Trump disputed them on Twitter, claiming that “the FAKE NEWS media lied” about their “very civil conversation.” So the leak exposes not only his boorishness, but a lie in his war with the media.

Frum points out that the disclosures do not directly damage the interests of the United States, since the transcripts only confirm already circulating reports and contain nothing embarrassing or unflattering for Turnbull or Peña Nieto. But Frum also believes the harm is done: No foreign leader can now talk on the phone to the American president and be sure his words won’t end up on the front pages of the newspapers.

Does the public value of the disclosures make up for the harm? It’s hard to tell; for one, foreign leaders may have been skittish about relying on Trump’s discretion even before the leaks.

In any event, as Trump points out, the responsibility still rests with Trump, whose misconduct “inspires counter-misconduct” even among career civil servants.

Trump ran for president and won as an enemy of the “establishment,” someone who would upend the system. He broke all the rules on the campaign trail, saying things that would sink any other candidacy and getting away with them. He has continued to break the rules postelection, in everything from maintaining ties to his businesses and refusing to disclose his tax returns to using Twitter to attack journalists, members of Congress and his own attorney general.

Trump’s behavior fosters disrespect for the presidency, but his own disrespect for the rules is also contagious.

The fish rots from the head.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.