Trump keeps Putin notes un­der wraps

Pres­i­dent tries to shield com­mu­ni­ca­tions with Rus­sian leader from pub­lic scru­tiny, key aides


Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has gone to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to con­ceal de­tails of his con­ver­sa­tions with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, in­clud­ing on at least one oc­ca­sion tak­ing pos­ses­sion of the notes of his own in­ter­preter and in­struct­ing the lin­guist not to dis­cuss what had tran­spired with other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials said.

Trump did so af­ter a meet­ing with Putin in 2017 in Ham­burg that was also at­tended by then-Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son. U.S. of­fi­cials learned of Trump’s ac­tions when a White House ad­viser and a se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cial sought in­for­ma­tion from the in­ter­preter be­yond a read­out shared by Tiller­son.

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.

Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller III is thought to be in the fi­nal stages of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has focused largely on whether Trump or his as­so­ciates con­spired with Rus­sia dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. The new de­tails about Trump’s con­tin­ued se­crecy un­der­score the ex­tent to which lit­tle is known about his com­mu­ni­ca­tions with Putin since be­com­ing pres­i­dent.

For­mer U.S. of­fi­cials said that Trump’s be­hav­ior is at odds with the known prac­tices of pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents, who have re­lied on se­nior aides to wit­ness meet­ings and take com­pre­hen­sive notes then shared with other of­fi­cials and de­part­ments.

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.”

A White House spokesman dis­puted that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and said that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to “im­prove the re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia” af­ter the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion “pur­sued a flawed ‘re­set’ pol­icy that sought en­gage­ment for the sake of en­gage­ment.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion “has im­posed sig­nif­i­cant new sanc­tions in re­sponse to Rus­sian malign ac­tiv­i­ties,” said the spokesman, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity and noted that Tiller­son in 2017 “gave a ful­some read­out of the meet­ing im­me­di­ately af­ter­ward to other U.S. of­fi­cials in a pri­vate set­ting, as well as a read­out to the press.”

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.

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