One day after the New York Times resurrected the dying Trump-Russia narrative with a report that the FBI supercharged their collusion investigation after President Trump fired F.B.I. director James Comey (on the recommendation of Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein), the Washington Post has tossed another match on the pyre - reporting that Trump went to lengths to conceal his communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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. -WaPo
The Post says that Trump concealed the details of a 2017 meeting in Hamburg attended by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which was only discovered when a senior State Department official queried the interpreter for information beyond a readout shared by Tillerson.
According to the Post, Trump engaged in a "broader pattern" 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."
Perhaps Trump - who has been subject to unauthorized leaks of sensitive discussions ever since he took office - including a phone call with the former President of Mexico, grew distrustful of his inner circle and has been trying to manage the flow of information throughout the White House. On the other hand, any President meeting with an adversarial world leader at five locations over the past two years and then actively working to shield those conversations from his own inner circle is bound to attract suspicion.
I'd only emphasize that, whatever you think about the topic of the Mueller investigation, for any president to meet substantively with a foreign leader without his own aides, or other leaders, as witnesses is a very bad idea, simply for the effective conduct of US foreign policy.— Patrick Chovanec (@prchovanec) July 3, 2018
As a result of Trump's actions, US officials say there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump's face-to-face meetings with Putin. And the left is already running with this as a case of Kremlin leverage - much as they did with the Steele Dossier's unverified claims that the Kremlin had tapes of Trump engaging in deviant sexual behavior in a Moscow hotel room.
Correction: There is one detailed classified record of Trump’s numerous conversations with Vladimir Putin. It’s in the Kremlin.— John Aravosis 🇺🇸 (@aravosis) January 12, 2019
Trump is desperate to keep the details of his conversations with Putin secret. To what lengths would he go for Putin not to make them public? https://t.co/5g2FaGIhbH
According to former Bill Clinton's former deputy secretary of state and former Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott, Trump's secrecy surrounding his interactions with Putin "is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous." Talbot participated in over a dozen meetings with 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," added Talbott.
White House Responds
Responding to the Post, the White House said that the Trump administration had only 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. -WaPo
Trump launched an internal leak hunt after the Post reported in May of 2017 that he revealed classified information about a terror plot to Russian officials in the Oval Office, and called former FBI director James Comey a "nut job," whose firing had removed "great pressure" on his relationship with Russia.
In addition to the leak hunt, the White House sharply curtailed the distribution of memos within the National Security Council on Trump'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 one WaPo source.
Democrats frothing at the mouth
Congressional Democratic leaders have described the secrecy surrounding Trump's meetings with Putin as "unprecedented and disturbing," and have vowed to investigate.
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.” -WaPo
The Post suggests that the concerns have been compounded by pro-Russia positions Trump has taken; dismissing Russian election interference as a "hoax," and suggesting that Russia was entitled to annex Crimea.
That said, the Post fails to mention the vast sanctions Trump has slapped Russia with, the weapons Trump has sold to Ukraine that the Obama administration wouldn't (for which WaPo commended him ) - and more recently, Trump's threat to sanction European businesses that buy energy from Russia, which drew a harsh rebuke from the German Committee on East European Relations.
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.
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. -WaPo
Meanwhile, Trump's interpreter has refused to discuss Trump's interactions with Putin - though he conceeded that Putin denied any Russian involvement in the US election, and that Trump said "I believe you."
"We were frustrated because we didn’t get a readout," said a former senior administration official. "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."