Trump-Putin face-to-face be­comes a big se­cret

Trump has con­cealed de­tails of his deal­ings with Putin from senior of­fi­cials in ad­min­is­tra­tion


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-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 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 con­tin- ued 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 ter­ror plot, called for­mer FBI direc­tor James 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 de- scribe the cloak of se­crecy sur­round­ing Trump’s meet­ings with Putin as un­prece­dented and dis­turb­ing.

Rep. Eliot 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 ef­forts 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 twohour 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 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.

Bloomberg photo by Chris Rat­cliffe

In­clud­ing-a closed-door meet­ing in Helsinki in 2018, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has now met with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin five times. How­ever, there’s no de­tailed record, even in clas­si­fied files, of Trump’s face-to-face in­ter­ac­tions.

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