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On a Saturday afternoon at the start of March, President Barack Obama set a new record for his administration, holding what aides say was his single longest phone call with another world leader. Obama’s tension-filled 90-minute marathon with Vladimir Putin failed to reverse Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula and heightened fears of a new Cold War with Moscow.
It was one of four times in the past three weeks that the White House disclosed Obama had spoken with the Russian president and came amid a blizzard of telephone calls between the American president and world leaders as Obama sought to de-escalate the crisis.
Obama has been stateside since returning to Washington from a short trip to Mexico for a Latin American economic summit. But he might as well have been at the United Nations. Since Feb. 20, the White House has revealed, Obama's held calls to discuss the Ukraine crisis with the leaders of Germany (four times), Britain (three times), France (twice), China, Canada, Estonia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus, Poland and Spain. That’s in addition to the calls to Putin.
It’s easy to wonder why a president needs to “work the phones” in the era of email, texting, Skype and high-definition video chats. The president is famous for his iPad and his tweets; he even sat down for a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) as part of his outreach to the American people. But current and former aides to Obama and his two predecessors interviewed by Yahoo News were unanimous: When it comes to communicating with world leaders, it is a technology developed in the 19th century that still rules. The telephone remains a dominant tool of international diplomacy in a world where many nations lack America’s more recent technological advances. And the sound of the human voice — full of nuance and meaning, even without translation — communicates something essential to delicate negotiations, helping forge bonds across oceans and cultural chasms.
“It’s immediate. It’s relatively easy to connect and to secure, but [is] still very personal. And basically everyone has a phone,” said a former national security official.
How a presidential phone call gets made is a story of technological advances coupled with careful research, negotiating skill and a politician's gift (or lack of it) for grasping human psychology. When the president of the United States reaches out to touch someone, very little is left to chance, not even small talk, according to current and former aides interviewed for this story. Each White House’s approach differs slightly, but the broad outlines remain the same.
Before Obama calls another world leader, an aide brings him a specially prepared National Security Council dossier. The 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. “Are they cool-headed? Or the opposite? Do they like to joke?” said one source familiar with the contents of the dossier.
“The world leader profiles include basic intel, idiosyncrasies, personal political pressures, whether any close relatives are seriously ill, girl- or boyfriend problems, personal health issues,” said another official.
The marathon Putin call went badly. The former KGB spy spent much of the hour and a half insisting, without evidence, that ethnic Russians were enduring horrible things at the hands of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, according to senior U.S. officials. Obama spent much of the call insisting, without success, that the charges were groundless and offering what the Obama administration officials characterized as a “diplomatic offramp” from the accelerating crisis. The two sides released dueling accounts of the call — summaries known as “readouts” — that nevertheless generally back up the U.S. description.
Obama’s telephone tussle with Putin yielded no breakthrough on Ukraine. But it might one day warrant its own entry in the fraught, fascinating history of presidential phone calls.
The White House has had a telephone since 1877, when then-President Rutherford B. Hayes had one installed. The number was “1.” He first used the new contraption on June 29, 1877, according to a Providence Journal clipping provided by Nancy Kleinhenz of the Hayes Presidential Center. “That is wonderful,” Hayes remarked at one point. “Please speak a little more slowly.”
It wasn’t until March 1929 that the telephone reached the Oval Office, courtesy of then-President Herbert Hoover.
The telephone’s importance to presidential diplomacy has only grown since then, though the famous “red telephone” linking Washington and Moscow sprang from Hollywood’s imagination. That “hotline” began as a Teletype connection between the Pentagon and the Kremlin and since 2008 has relied on emails sent between secure computers.
Roughly 137 years after Hayes, Obama can place calls from virtually anywhere. The official White House Flickr feed shows him on the phone in the Oval Office, often at the presidential Resolute desk (when not in use, that phone can be kept plugged in but stored in a drawer on the president’s left side).
But he will sometimes chat while sitting in one of the office’s armchairs or sofas, or from the private study nearby. Presidents don’t like using speakerphone (“Makes it feel less direct, more for an audience,” said one former national security official). He can reach out from his armored limousine, the Beast, using a phone embedded in his seat. He has sometimes made calls from his workspace in the Treaty Room in the residence of the White House. And Air Force One is a flying technological marvel from which he can reach basically any other phone on Earth in a crisis — though past and present aides say that there is such a lag time when calling from the plane that the president and the other leader often talk over each other until they get into the right rhythm.
Obama can also repair to the Situation Room, the tightly secured war room of the White House.
That nerve center, which takes up about 2,700 square feet, includes a main conference room for the president as well as a smaller conference room that is best known as the scene of the iconic photograph taken on the night of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
As of 2006, the larger conference room held six flat-screen televisions with videoconference cameras and displays that highlighted the current security level of the discussion and whether the microphones are on to avoid potential slip-ups.
If the president chooses to make contact through a secure videoconference — a system called Secure Video TeleConference, but known by its acronym SVTC, pronounced "CIV-its" — he can do so from the Situation Room. Another option is the Roosevelt Room, a large windowless rectangular meeting room on the ground floor of the White House. Most visitors note the painting of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, but they ignore the large cabinet on the opposite wall that houses the necessary equipment to get presidents face to face with people halfway around the world. The Camp David retreat nestled in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains can also host secure videoconferences.
Secure video has a few advantages over the traditional phone call. “You can really read the body language,” one source said. And because several people can be seen and heard, videoconferences are useful for conducting long-distance meetings.
But just a handful of world leaders have that capability (and most of them only thanks to help from the U.S., which set it up for them).
Either way, Situation Room staff connect the communication. They are generally drawn from the military, the State Department or the intelligence community. There also are White House Communications Agency staffers whose mission includes making it possible for the president to make similar calls on the road.
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.
“Five minutes, two minutes ... he is coming to the phone,” said one source. When the other world leader gets on, the staffer delivers the line many know from the movies: “Please hold for the president.”
Perhaps Obama's most historic phone call was his September 27, 2013, call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct telephone conversation between leaders of both countries since a 1979 revolution swept Islamists to power in Tehran. It ended with Rouhani bidding Obama "have a nice day" and Obama offering a common Farsi farewell, "khodahafez."
It doesn’t always go smoothly. On one of President George W. Bush’s calls to Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the senior U.S. aide picked up the phone, only to hear someone talking. “You shouldn’t be talking on this line!” the American yelled. “Who is this?”
The Aussie politely responded: “I’m sorry. This is John.”
“John WHO?” the American demanded. “John Howard,” the other replied.
The calls aren’t recorded, several sources said (that’s been a no-no since Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes). But the White House produces an internal, informal transcript. “Up to three national security staffers are in a room next to the Sit’ Room conference room, listening to the audio and are typing as fast as they can,” one Bush-era aide said. (No one would say how they get the audio.) The resulting document can be shared with top aides or a larger group, “or not at all,” depending on the sensitivity of the information, one source said.
Sometimes, senior national security aides will suggest changes to the document that better reflect the facts or U.S. policy. “The only changes I would allow were clear misinterpretations by the recorders and words that might unintentionally and needlessly hurt some nonprincipals' feelings,” said one former senior official. “All intentional swipes were left in.” (The official declined to give examples.)
Mistakes happen. In January 2001, Bush spoke to Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had also recently taken office. Her inexperienced staff released a transcript, much to the annoyance of the White House.
"We're the two freshest faces in the presidential ranks in the world," Bush said. “We have many things in common, including being children of former presidents," Arroyo said.
“I hope I didn't call you too early,” Bush said.
“No, no. It's about a little past 8 a.m. here,” she replied.
“Oh, it's about past 7 in the evening here, so we're actually in different timelines," Bush said.
Calls can be timed for a calendar event — a country’s national holiday, for example — or tied to a crisis like a natural disaster or other tragic event. On December 5, 2013, Obama rang up South African President Jacob Zuma to express condolences over the death of Nelson Mandela.
Presidents reach out to other world leaders to find common approaches to policy problems. Or to ask a favor — like Bush asking German Chancellor Angela Merkel to expand her country’s role in training Afghan security forces — or make it possible for an ally to ask a favor, like U.S. aid after a natural disaster.
Sometimes, though, the conversation is what diplomats call “frank and candid” — code for a heated argument.
“In cases where an ally (or not so much) is thought to be heading in a direction that is inconsistent with national security policy, a conversation is had to issue a polite but stern warning,” one source said. “Not threats. Threats seldom work well, but candid suggestions that we would not look kindly on this action and it would make dealing with you more difficult in the future.”
Presidential telephone calls are methodically planned but not really choreographed. There are talking points but “no scripts,” said one source who served in several White Houses. “Presidents usually believe they are, in fact, the president, so they can say and do what they please.”
And sometimes a president reaches out to a partner on the world stage “just to touch base.”
Late in his term, Bush found himself one day with an unexpected 20-minute gap in his schedule. He used it on a spur-of-the-moment call to the Dalai Lama, who was hospitalized at the time. “The president wasn’t much for hanging out, doing nothing,” an aide explained. "So he said, ‘Let’s get the Dalai Lama on the phone!’”
Personal friendships definitely play a role in who can get the president on the phone.
“Prime Minister (Tony) Blair (of Britain) was always put through. Others ... not so much,” one source said of the Bush era. “Sometimes intended and unintended slights happen.”
Ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi “was always really friendly and conversational and seemed reasonable. And he would often deliver (on U.S. requests) after those calls,” said an Obama-era source.
Obama and Russian former President Dmitry Medvedev “really got along, talked a long time,” said that source. “They spent hours and hours on the telephone,” including at least 15 to 16 calls around the START treaty.
Bush’s most grueling calls were often with Hu Jintao. “They were unbelievable. Almost all of them were more than an hour long,” one source explained. Why? “Because of translation and because 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.
(Here’s some of the ritualized language Bush had 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.”
“Before you could dig into the matter at hand, it was talking points talking points talking points ... and then in the last 10 minutes you’d get to the point,” the source said.
Once the call was over, though, the Chinese hurriedly released their “readout” — looking to shape the media coverage of the conversation, a potentially valuable edge because the two sides don’t always agree on what part of a call matters most.
“The call would barely be over and Xinhua would be moving the Chinese readout. It became a race to the email,” said one official. NSC aides would run from the Oval Office or the Situation Room to get the U.S. version out.
Bush held videoconferences every Wednesday, alternating between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Aides said seeing them on the screen provided valuable clues. “You would see who was on with them, and sometimes it helped to understand their political situation.”
The Dubya White House learned the hard way that Maliki’s people released their account of the calls immediately. So the White House included press secretary Dana Perino on the calls “to make it a more even race.”
That same tension sometimes exists with allies. Obama and French President Francois Hollande, for example, released such different readouts of an October 22, 2013, conversation that it almost seemed they were on different calls.
And that’s another lesson every president learns. The same state-of-the-art equipment that enables them to connect to another leader halfway across the world from 10,000 feet in the sky aboard Air Force One also makes it possible for them to talk right past each other.