Just Between Us

News  |  Jan 16, 2019

With increased interest in what exactly President Trump has been trying to hide from the press, the public, and his own administration about his conversations with Vladimir PutinThe New York Times has posted an infographic detailing the 18 known interactions – four letters, five in-person meetings, and nine calls – between the two leaders. 

The Times also takes a closer look at those five in-person encounters in particular, noting we know very little about what Trump and Putin have discussed. 


The first time they met was in Germany. President Trump took his interpreter’s notes afterward and ordered him not to disclose what he heard to anyone. Later that night, at a dinner, Mr. Trump pulled up a seat next to President Vladimir V. Putin to talk without any American witnesses at all.

Their third encounter was in Vietnam when Mr. Trump seemed to take Mr. Putin’s word that he had not interfered in American elections. A formal summit meeting followed in Helsinki, Finland, where the two leaders kicked out everyone but the interpreters. Most recently, they chatted in Buenos Aires after Mr. Trump said they would not meet because of Russian aggression.


“What’s disconcerting is the desire to hide information from your own team,” said Andrew S. Weiss, who was a Russia adviser to President Bill Clinton. “The fact that Trump didn’t want the State Department or members of the White House team to know what he was talking with Putin about suggests it was not about advancing our country’s national interest but something more problematic.”

Just following the official Hamburg meeting, after which Trump confiscated the interpreter's notes, the NYT recalls another set of curious encounters occurred. 

Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin that day lasted more than two hours. Afterward, Mr. Trump took his interpreter’s notes and instructed the interpreter not to brief anyone. [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson told reporters that the leaders discussed everything from Syria to Ukraine, but he also described “a very robust and lengthy exchange” on the election hacking.

A few hours later, Mr. Trump sought out Mr. Putin again during a dinner for all the leaders. Videotape later made public showed Mr. Trump pointing at Mr. Putin, who was seated across and down a long table, then pointing at himself and then making a pumping motion with his fist.

Mr. Trump later told The Times that he went over to see his wife, Melania Trump, who was sitting next to Mr. Putin, and the two leaders then talked, with Mr. Putin’s interpreter translating. No American officials were present, and the White House did not confirm the encounter until more than 10 days later, after it was independently reported.

The day after the two meetings, as Mr. Trump was on Air Force One taking off from Germany heading back to Washington, he telephoned a Times reporter and argued that the Russians were falsely accused of election interference. While he insisted most of the conversation be off the record, he later repeated a few things in public in little-noticed asides.

He said that he raised the election hacking three times and that Mr. Putin denied involvement. But he said Mr. Putin also told him that “if we did, we wouldn’t have gotten caught because we’re professionals.” Mr. Trump said: “I thought that was a good point because they are some of the best in the world” at hacking.

Asked how he weighed Mr. Putin’s denials against the evidence that had been presented to him by [former FBI Director James] Comey; John O. Brennan, then the C.I.A. director; and James R. Clapper Jr., then director of national intelligence, he said that Mr. Clapper and Mr. Brennan were the “most political” intelligence chiefs he knew and that Mr. Comey was “a leaker.”

Later on the same flight to Washington, Mr. Trump huddled with aides to decide how to respond to the emerging story by other Times reporters about the Trump Tower meeting. He personally dictated a misleading statement, saying the meeting was about Russian adoptions without admitting that it was actually intended to accept Moscow’s aid for his campaign, as emails obtained by The Times later documented.

Today, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jack Reed (D-RI), ranking members of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees respectively, sent a letter to President Trump asking for proof he has kept adequate records of his conversations with Putin as is required by law. They also want Congress to be able to interview the interpreters who participated in those conversations, especially the one-on-one in Helsinki. 

From the letter:

We seek your immediate confirmation that you have preserved all records, including notes, transcripts, documents, and communications related to any meetings, telephone calls, or any other interaction that you have had with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin since being sworn into office in January 2017, and we call upon you to preserve all such records going forward ... 

Your insistence on secrecy related to these interactions, even with your own staff, is alarming, unprecedented, and could be in violation of the Presidential Records Act and Federal Records Act. In light of reports on January 11, 2019 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a counterintelligence investigation into your ties with the Russian Federation, we believe it to be in the national security interests of the United States that any record of these conversations be preserved and immediately provided to Congress. 


“I’ve never heard of a president conducting one-on-one meetings with his Russian counterpart without note-takers or without afterward offering readouts to his top aides,” said David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state under Mr. Bush. “Putin is privy to what the two discussed — why can’t senior administration officials be trusted and looped in too?”

Every Time Trump Has Talked to Putin (NYT)

Trump and Putin Have Met Five Times. What Was Said Is a Mystery. (NYT)

Menendez and Reed Letter to President Trump