President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Hamburg. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
This latest by the Washington Post is a bit of a head-scratcher.
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-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.
The story goes on to state:
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.”
And the incoming Democrats are making noises about investigating:
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.”
I’ve got to confess as to having doubts about the claim that there is no record anywhere of what was said in that meeting. That could be the case but it is difficult to imagine a President Trump who would not want to have this record available to show how he handled Putin for historians or for his memoirs. And I suspect that Mr. Engel will discover that there is a US Constitution that is based on separation of powers.
The only takeaway I get from this is that a) Trump felt burned when Obama loyalists or NeverTrumpers in the government released confidential read-outs of his calls to foreign leaders in a way that made Trump look bad and took steps to protect himself and b) someone who desperately wanted to leak a NeverTrump version of the Putin conversation is really and truly pissed. In fact, the Post basically admits this was the reason in a comment by someone who almost certainly is Rex Tillerson:
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.
Two other items bear mentioning. First, not very much could have happened as Tillerson was in the meeting and some kind of grand conspiracy to work against US interests could hardly have been hatched with the Secretary of State and an interpreter present. Second, I’m unclear on how the lack of a record makes Trump susceptible to manipulation by Putin. It would seem to me to work just the opposite. Absent a written record, Trump is free to say whatever he wishes about what was said without fear of contradiction. The absence of a US transcript automatically makes anything released by the Russians suspect. Beyond that, does anyone think that Trump views his statements to anyone to be ironclad-take-it-to-the-bank promises?
Taken together with the Friday New York Times story about the FBI launching its own investigation of President Trump (something, by the way, we don’t actually know happened) this seems like the last gasp of the Russia collusion narrative. Undoubtedly, the Democrats on Mueller’s team and those in-the-know in Department of Justice have told their friends in the media what sane people have known, there is no there there in the primary focus of Mueller’s investigation and they shouldn’t dig themselves in any deeper. What you see in these stories is “sure, there’s noting there but it looked like there was and we couldn’t take chances.”
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