Phone call
January 22, 2020


Elsa Walsh: Hi, this is Elsa Walsh, Bob’s wife. On the evening of January 22 at around 9 pm, the phone rang at our house. I picked it up. “Is Bob there?” a man asked. I didn’t recognise the voice so I asked, “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Donald Trump,” the man said.

“Hello Mr President,” I responded, and I handed the phone to Bob.

Bob Woodward (BW): I put Trump on speakerphone and Elsa continued to listen, as she did in many of these calls. Again, it was an unplanned call, but this time I had a recorder. Trump had just returned from Davos, Switzerland, where he had spoken victoriously about the American economy at the World Economic Forum. This was an exclusive gathering of international financial leaders. The president seemed in high spirits. Earlier that day I had interviewed Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger about the letters Trump had received from North Korean president Kim Jong Un. I was still pressing to get the letters Trump had written to Kim. I will warn you that the audio quality is rather poor for this recording.

BW: I’m going to ask my wife Elsa to pick up and introduce you on the phone, if that’s proper.

Donal Trump: Good. Okay.

EW: Hi, Mr President. How are you?

DT: How are you? Nice to talk to you.

EW: Good. Are you keeping warm in Davos?

DT: Well, I just got back. I literally just landed. I walked in, I heard that Bob called. So I’m just returning his call. But literally just got back. It was a great success. We had everybody there. I think you probably saw it was really a great success. Good place. It was a good meeting with a lot of people.

EW: Always fun to be in Switzerland.

DT: Well, you sound excellent. Thank you. You help your husband a lot, I’ll bet, in a lot of ways.

EW: I do. [laughs] You know, these things are always a team.

DT: Well, that’s true. And he’s a great gentleman, he really is. I wish I worked with him on the other book. But Bob knows what happened. They tried to –

BW: Well, I was over talking to Matt Pottinger today, President Trump, and we got going on looking at all the Korean situation and development.

DT: Good.

BW: And he has said we’ll spend an evening going through the whole chronology.

DT: Good. I think it’s actually important to a certain level. I just would like you to be careful, because I’m not looking to insult him.

COMMENTARY: By “him,” Trump is referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

DT: You know, I took a couple of people with me. One of them was Tucker Carlson, who’s a nice guy, treats me good. And he left, and he said terrible things about him. He said terrible things, that he’s in bad physical shape and he looks terrible. [laughs] I mean, it was really a disaster, if you want to know the truth. And you know it’s tough to bring somebody in, and then he leaves and says how horribly out of shape you are and all of that stuff. So it was pretty bad. But –

BW: Well, I want to get the details. And Matt’s going to help me. And I want to talk to –

DT: Good. I think that’s great. You know, in the meantime it’s been three years without a war. There’s a very good relationship.

BW: And the other one I want to do a full excavation on, the development of policy, is Iran

DT: Okay.

BW: Because clearly that’s important. And I talked to Ambassador O’Brien about China, and I’ll talk to him more about things.

DT: Okay. China, by the way, is now an extraordinarily good relationship. The deal is extraordinary. They’re going to be spending $250 billion in the United States. And we have a great relationship.

COMMENTARY: Trump’s China deal is now largely considered a bust, but Trump regularly and publicly declares it the greatest trade deal ever.

DT: And you know, it’s a very important thing to have a good relationship if you can with these countries, because – I mean, you would know probably better than anybody, but outside of religion, trade is the most dangerous thing there is. Very dangerous, I feel.

BW: And if you were looking at this and you’re living it and you’re the decision-maker, what else in foreign policy or domestic policy should I look at to do the comprehensive book, September, October of this year to say to people, this is what happened. This is the results and so forth.

DT: Yeah. Well, let me give you just a couple of little quick things. So Idlib . . .

COMMENTARY: Idlib is a city in northwestern Syria.

DT:. . . they were going to go to war there two years ago. They were going to blow the whole town up. Three million people live there. I was in Ohio at a big rally. And a woman, a very substantial woman, she’s Syrian, I guess. And she was backstage, and she was crying, crying. Her parents live in Idlib with her sister. I had said, what’s your problem? She goes, they’re going to kill everybody in Idlib. Which is true. And I said, no they’re not. The world is watching. You can’t – it’s not like the old days. Right? But things sometimes, they’re not so different, maybe. And I get back and I pick up the terrible New York Times, and I open to page, like, 14. It was just – And I see Idlib. First time I had heard of it. This is two years ago. And it said Idlib and then Russia, Iran, and Syria have surrounded the city of Idlib, with three million people, and they’re going to blow the hell out of it. They’re not discriminating like us. We go from door to door, and people lose their legs and their arms doing that. They bomb it and they worry about it later. It’s a very tough thing. Millions of people die. But they don’t do it the way we do it. We do it the nice way, but we lose a lot of boys. We lose a lot of limbs. A lot of arms, lot of legs, etc. That’s one of the reasons we haven’t – Anyway. I put out a social media statement: you better not do it. And they stopped. Russia, Iran, and Syria, they stopped.

COMMENTARY: Recep Erdogan, the 68-year-old strongman leader of Turkey, consolidated power over 19 years and is widely considered one of the world’s most notorious autocrats.

BW: So what else would you look at, President Trump?

DT: Well, let me tell you a quick one. So for five years, Egypt – the Nile, right? The great Nile. Egypt has a large army. And you know Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Ethiopia built one of the largest dams in the world. I think the largest dam in Africa, but one of the largest. A massive dam. Hundreds of millions of dollars. And just massive. When I say hundreds of millions, $4 billion. It’s extraordinarily big. And they’ve been building it for years. And they’ve been negotiating with Egypt. Sudan is involved, too. Sudan has no money, but they’re sort of right in the middle. Very warlike.

COMMENTARY: Trump is talking about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the biggest in Africa. Egypt and Sudan had been in fraught negotiations with Ethiopia for years about how the dam would affect water supply.

DT: So for five years they’ve been negotiating. This took place two weeks ago. And Egypt is threatening to go to war. They’re going to blow up the dam. The dam is not built yet, but it’s starting to hold back water. And what would happen is the Nile would literally not have water. Not too good, right? Not fair, either. So I’m friends with el-Sisi. So they send a delegation into Washington to meet with Mnuchin, secretary of treasury. And el-Sisi called me to say how bad it is. And they, you know, he sort of indicated it’s going to end up being war.

COMMENTARY: Trump had previously referred to Egyptian president el-Sisi as his favorite dictator.

BW: And when was this, Mr President?

DT: This was one month ago. So they’ve been negotiating five years. They got nowhere. Zero, nowhere. And it was getting more and more diffiCult. And now the water’s being blocked more and more as the dam gets built. It’ll be done in a year and a half. It’ll be done in two years. So I get a call, and I knew that they’re here. That all of the representatives are here. The top representatives of the countries, the three countries. So I tell Steve Mnuchin to bring them into the White House. I said, hello. And then I said, okay. How much aid do we give you, Sudan? She said, you give us – it was a woman. She said, you give us $500 million. No, I said, we give you $541 million. That’s a big difference. So mark it down. How much aid do we give you, Ethiopia? He said, $1.1 billion. I said, no, we give you $1.19 billion. It’s a lot of money. And how much aid, Egypt, do we give you? Don’t even tell me, because it’s $1.3 billion. I know that one very well, because they’re always looking for their money. I said, are you ready? Within one hour – They’ve been negotiating for five years, Bob.

BW: Yes, sir.

DT: I said, within one hour, come back to my office and tell me you have a deal. And if you don’t have a deal, I’m going to cut off all aid to all three countries. No, no, no, sir, you can’t – I said, that’s okay. You’ve got plenty of time. One hour. I sent them into the Roosevelt Room, right across the hall from the Oval Office. 48 minutes later they came back in. Sir, sir, we have a deal. We have finally made a deal after five years. I got a call from el-Sisi. He said, I’ve got to tell you, I cannot believe it. He called me to see would it be possible for me to see it because they were going to have to blow the dam up. You can’t turn off the water for the Nile, okay? You know, I mean – So instead of going to war – and Ethiopia has a massive army. Tremendous.

BW: So this has never been reported?

DT: No, nobody will report it. So what happens is I get a call from el-Sisi. Tough guy, right?

BW: Yeah.

DT: He’s – you know, the general. He’s the boss over there. And he says to me, it’s a miracle. I cannot believe it. He said, I called not thinking you could do it, but knowing you were the only man in the world that could do it. I said, it was easy. It was very easy.

Excerpted with permission from Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Donald Trump, Bob Woodward, Simon and Schuster India.