Of­fi­cials in dark on Putin talks

TRUMP CONCEALS DE­TAILS, AIDES SAY Pres­i­dent’s ac­tions cre­ate un­usual gap in record

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GREG MILLER

Pres­i­dent 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-to­face 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 S. 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.

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 ter­ror­ism 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.

“Over time it got harder and harder, I think, be­cause of a sense from Trump him­self that the leaks of the call tran­scripts were harm­ful to him,” said a for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial.

Se­nior Demo­cratic law­mak­ers de­scribe the cloak of se­crecy sur­round­ing Trump’s meet­ings with Putin as un­prece­dented and dis­turb­ing.

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.”

The con­cerns have been com­pounded by ac­tions and po­si­tions Trump has taken as pres­i­dent that are seen as fa­vor­able to the Krem­lin. He has dis­missed Rus­sia’s elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence as a “hoax,” sug­gested that Rus­sia was en­ti­tled to an­nex Crimea, re­peat­edly at­tacked NATO al­lies, re­sisted ef forts to im­pose sanc­tions on Moscow, and be­gun to pull U.S. forces out of Syria — a move that crit­ics see as ef­fec­tively ced­ing ground to Rus­sia.

At the same time, Trump’s de­ci­sion to fire Comey and other at­tempts to con­tain the on­go­ing Rus­sia investigation led the bureau in May 2017 to launch a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence investigation into whether he was seek­ing to help Rus­sia and if so, why, a step first re­ported by the New York Times.

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.

Trump gen­er­ally has al­lowed aides to lis­ten to his phone con­ver­sa­tions with Putin, al­though Rus­sia has of­ten been first to dis­close those calls when they oc­cur and re­lease state­ments char­ac­ter­iz­ing them in broad terms fa­vor­able to the Krem­lin.

In an email, Tiller­son said that he “was present for the en­tirety of the two pres­i­dents’ of­fi­cial bi­lat­eral meet­ing in Ham­burg,” but he 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.

“We were frus­trated be­cause we didn’t get a read­out,” a for­mer se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said. “The State De­part­ment and [Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil] were never com­fort­able” with Trump’s in­ter­ac­tions with Putin, the of­fi­cial said. “God only knows what they were go­ing to talk about or agree to.”

Be­cause of the ab­sence of any re­li­able record of Trump’s con­ver­sa­tions with Putin, of­fi­cials at times have had to rely on re­ports by U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies track­ing the re­ac­tion in the Krem­lin.

Pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents and se­nior ad­vis­ers have of­ten stud­ied such re­ports to as­sess whether they had ac­com­plished their ob­jec­tives in meet­ings as well as to gain in­sights for fu­ture con­ver­sa­tions.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have been re­luc­tant to call at­ten­tion to such re­ports dur­ing Trump’s pres­i­dency be­cause they have at times in­cluded com­ments by for­eign of­fi­cials dis­parag­ing the pres­i­dent or his ad­vis­ers, in­clud­ing his sonin-law Jared Kush­ner, a for­mer se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

“There was more of a ret­i­cence in the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity go­ing af­ter those kinds of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and re­port­ing them,” said a for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who worked in the White House. “The feed­back tended not to be pos­i­tive.”

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.

Among the of­fi­cials who asked for de­tails from the meet­ing were Fiona Hill, the se­nior Rus­sia ad­viser at the NSC, and John Hef­fern, who was then serv­ing at State as the act­ing as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for Euro­pean and Eurasian Af­fairs.

The State De­part­ment did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment from the in­ter­preter. Hef­fern, who re­tired from State in 2017, de­clined to com­ment.

Through a spokesman, Hill de­clined a re­quest for an in­ter­view.

There are con­flict­ing ac­counts of the purpose of the con­ver­sa­tion with the in­ter­preter, with some of­fi­cials say­ing that Hill was among those briefed by Tiller­son and that she was merely seek­ing more nu­anced in­for­ma­tion from the in­ter­preter.

Oth­ers said the aim was to get a more mean­ing­ful read­out than the scant in­for­ma­tion fur­nished by Tiller­son. “I re­call Fiona re port­ing that to me,” one for­mer of­fi­cial said. A sec­ond for­mer of­fi­cial present in Ham­burg said that Tiller­son “didn’t of­fer a brief­ing or call the am­bas­sador or any­body together. He didn’t brief se­nior staff,” al­though he “gave a read­out to the press.”

A sim­i­lar is­sue arose in Helsinki, the set­ting for the first for­mal U.S.-Rus­sia sum­mit since Trump be­came pres­i­dent. Hill, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton and other U.S. of­fi­cials took part in a pre­lim­i­nary meet­ing that in­cluded Trump, Putin and other se­nior Rus­sian of­fi­cials.

But Trump and Putin then met for two hours in pri­vate, ac­com­pa­nied only by their in­ter­preters. Trump’s in­ter­preter, Ma­rina Gross, could be seen emerg­ing from the meet­ing with pages of notes.

Alarmed by the se­crecy of Trump’s meet­ing with Putin, sev­eral law­mak­ers sub­se­quently sought to com­pel Gross to tes­tify be­fore Con­gress about what she wit­nessed. Oth­ers ar­gued that forc­ing her to do so would vi­o­late the im­par­tial role that in­ter­preters play in diplo­macy. Gross was not forced to tes­tify. She was iden­ti­fied when mem­bers of Con­gress sought to speak with her. The in­ter­preter in Ham­burg has not been iden­ti­fied.

Dur­ing a joint news con­fer­ence with Putin after­ward, Trump ac­knowl­edged dis­cussing Syria pol­icy and other sub­jects but also lashed out at the me­dia and fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and he seemed to re­ject the find­ings of U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies by say­ing that he was per­suaded by Putin’s “pow­er­ful” de­nial of elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence.

Pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents have re­quired se­nior aides to at­tend meet­ings with ad­ver­saries in­clud­ing the Rus­sian pres­i­dent largely to en­sure that there are not mis­un­der­stand­ings and that oth­ers in the ad­min­is­tra­tion are able to fol­low up on any agree­ments or plans. De­tailed notes that Tal­bot took of Clin­ton’s meet­ings with Yeltsin are among hun­dreds of doc­u­ments de­clas­si­fied and re­leased last year.

DMITRY AZAROV/KOMMERSANT/SIPA USA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin met pri­vately in Helsinki in July 2018. “We still don’t know what went on in that meet­ing,” said Rep. Eliot L. En­gel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. “It’s ap­palling.”

EVAN VUCCI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Trump and Putin were together in Ham­burg in 2017. Their meet­ing lasted more than two hours and re­port­edly ad­dressed war in Syria.

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