President Donald Trump has taken steps to keep the details of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin from reaching other members of his administration, the Washington Post reported Saturday, leaving holes in the U.S. government’s account of what happened during meetings between the two leaders at five locations over the past two years.
Trump has even gone so far as to take his interpreter’s notes at the end of one meeting, the Post reported, citing current and former U.S. officials. That occurred after the President’s 2017 meeting in Hamburg with Putin, which the Post noted was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Trump also instructed the interpreter “not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials,” in the Post’s words.
Later, at the same G-20 summit, Trump and Putin spoke at a banquet with only Putin’s interpreter present. The Post said it wasn’t clear if there were other instances when Trump took his interpreter’s notes after meeting with Putin.
The White House spokesperson, speaking anonymously, told the Post that Tillerson “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.”
The Post reported that, while the American interpreter in the room during the Hamburg meeting “refused” to discuss it with other administration officials, the interpreter did say that Trump responded “I believe you” after Putin denied any Russian involvement in the U.S. election.
That contradicts the Trump administration line. A White House spokesperson told the Post, without mentioning Hamburg specifically, that Trump “has affirmed that he supports the conclusions in the 2017 Intel Community Assessment.”
Trump himself told Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro on Saturday, after the Post’s report was published: “Anybody could have listened to that meeting. That meeting is open for grabs.” It was unclear what he meant.
The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), told the Post “it’s been several months since” Trump’s closed-door meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, “and we still don’t know what went on in that meeting.”
“It’s appalling,” Engel said. “It just makes you want to scratch your head.”
After that meeting, Trump and Putin held a memorable joint press conference during which Trump doubted U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions about Russian election interference.
Putin, Trump said at the press conference after their private meeting, “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial” of election interference.
Several unnamed officials, the Post reported, “said they were never able to get a reliable readout of the president’s two-hour meeting in Helsinki.”
With the normal flow of information interrupted, the Post reported, administration officials have relied at times on intelligence agencies to glean information about Trump’s meetings with Putin — by monitoring Russian officials’ reactions to the meetings.