Less than a day after The New York Times' reported the FBI opened a counterintelligence inquiry into the President of the United States over concerns he might be working for Russia, The Washington Post reveals Trump has gone out of his way to hide details of his conversations with Vladimir Putin.
After a meeting between the two leaders in Hamburg, Germany in 2017, President Trump took "possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instruct[ed] the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
The constraints that Trump imposed are part of a broader pattern by the president of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States’ main adversaries.
As a result, U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.
Trump’s secrecy surrounding Putin “is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous,” said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state now at the Brookings Institution, who participated in more than a dozen meetings between President Bill Clinton and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. “It handicaps the U.S. government — the experts and advisers and Cabinet officers who are there to serve [the president] — and it certainly gives Putin much more scope to manipulate Trump.”
Trump allies said the president thinks the presence of subordinates impairs his ability to establish a rapport with Putin, and that his desire for secrecy may also be driven by embarrassing leaks that occurred early in his presidency.
The meeting in Hamburg happened several months after The Washington Post and other news organizations revealed details about what Trump had told senior Russian officials during a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Trump disclosed classified information about a terror plot, called former FBI director James B. Comey a “nut job,” and said that firing Comey had removed “great pressure” on his relationship with Russia.
The White House launched internal leak hunts after that and other episodes, and sharply curtailed the distribution within the National Security Council of memos on the president’s interactions with foreign leaders.
Almost six months later, no one knows what Trump and Putin discussed alone in Helsinki last summer. Democrats are demanding answers.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that his panel will form an investigative subcommittee whose targets will include seeking State Department records of Trump’s encounters with Putin, including a closed-door meeting with the Russian leader in Helsinki last summer.
“It’s been several months since Helsinki and we still don’t know what went on in that meeting,” Engel said. “It’s appalling. It just makes you want to scratch your head.”
Engel also issued a statement, which added the following:
“Every time Trump meets with Putin, the country is told nothing. America deserves the truth and the Foreign Affairs Committee will seek to get to the bottom of it. We will be holding hearings on the mysteries swirling around Trump’s bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies, and how those dark dealings affect our national security.”
It is not clear whether Trump has taken notes from interpreters on other occasions, but several officials said they were never able to get a reliable readout of the president’s two-hour meeting in Helsinki. Unlike in Hamburg, Trump allowed no Cabinet officials or any aides to be in the room for that conversation.
Trump also had other private conversations with Putin at meetings of global leaders outside the presence of aides. He spoke at length with Putin at a banquet at the same 2017 global conference in Hamburg, where only Putin’s interpreter was present. Trump also had a brief conversation with Putin at a Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires last month.
In an email, [former Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson said that he “was present for the entirety of the two presidents’ official bilateral meeting in Hamburg,” but declined to discuss the meeting and did not respond to questions about whether Trump had instructed the interpreter to remain silent or had taken the interpreter’s notes.
In a news conference afterward, Tillerson said that the Trump-Putin meeting lasted more than two hours, covered the war in Syria and other subjects, and that Trump had “pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement” in election interference. “President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson refused to say during the news conference whether Trump had rejected Putin’s claim or indicated that he believed the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered.
Tillerson’s account is at odds with the only detail that other administration officials were able to get from the interpreter, officials said. Though the interpreter refused to discuss the meeting, officials said, he conceded that Putin had denied any Russian involvement in the U.S. election and that Trump responded by saying, “I believe you.”
Senior Trump administration officials said that White House officials including then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster were never able to obtain a comprehensive account of the meeting, even from Tillerson.
The interpreter at Hamburg revealed the restrictions that Trump had imposed when he was approached by administration officials at the hotel where the U.S. delegation was staying, officials said.
President Trump called into Fox News Saturday and told Jeanine Pirro he is not hiding anything and would be willing to release the details of his private Helsinki meeting. However, it is what he did not say that is most notable.
Asked by Pirro if he'd ever worked on behalf of Russia, Trump did not directly answer the question, calling the Times' report "insulting."
Trump also evaded a question on whether the administration was seeking to keep special counsel Robert Mueller's final report on the Russia probe from the public, saying only that the investigation was a "hoax."
Engel Statement on Trump-Putin Meetings (press release)