President Donald Trump went to “extraordinary lengths” to keep details from his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin secret – even from officials within his own administration, The Washington Post reported this weekend, citing unnamed sources.
After meeting with Putin at the 2017 Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Trump took his interpreter’s notes and told him not to discuss the meeting with anyone, including other U.S. officials, the Post reported.
The paper said Trump’s handling of the Hamburg meeting was “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.”
No detailed record exists from five of Trump’s interactions with the Russian leader since taking office, the Post reported. It was unclear if that was the only time Trump took his interpreters’ notes, but the paper said several administration officials have been unable to obtain a readout from his meeting last year with Putin in Helsinki.
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Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was present at the meeting in Hamburg. The Post said Tillerson did not answer questions about Trump asking the interpreter to keep details of the meeting quiet, or if Trump took the interpreter’s notes.
Fiona Hill, a senior Russia adviser on the National Security Council, and former State Department official John Heffern asked Trump’s interpreter for more information about the Hamburg meeting, which is how they learned of the president’s request to keep the details under wraps, the Post reported.
In a news conference after the meeting, Tillerson said Putin denied interfering in the 2016 election, but refused to say how Trump responded to the denial, per the Post. Officials told the Post that the only detail from the meeting that the interpreter did share was that Trump told Putin, “I believe you.”
Trump denied the report during an interview with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro on Saturday. He called the Post “basically the lobbyist for Amazon,” because it is owned by the tech giant’s CEO Jeff Bezos, a Trump critic.
“I’m not keeping anything under wraps,” Trump said. “I couldn’t care less.”
“I have a one-on-one meeting with Putin like I do with every other leader. I have many one-on-one, nobody ever says anything about it,” Trump told Pirro. “But with Putin, they say, ‘Oh, what did they talk about?'”
“I meet with Putin, and they make a big deal. Anybody could have listened to that meeting. that meeting is up for grabs,” Trump said, adding that he and Putin spoke about Israel and “lots of other things.”
Trump dismissed the “whole Russia thing” as a “terrible hoax” and said he won in 2016 because he “was a better candidate than Hillary Clinton,” not because of collusion with Russian efforts to undermine her campaign.
“The fact is, I was obviously a good candidate. I won every debate. I won everything I did, and I won, and I won easily – 306-223, I believe,” Trump said, referring to his performance in the Electoral College.
Democrats were alarmed by The Washington Post report.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has sought details from Trump’s meetings with Putin and, after the 2018 Helsinki meeting, called for the president’s interpreter to testify before Congress.
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In August, she and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter requesting records from that meeting, including the interpreter’s notes. They cited the “extraordinary and, to our knowledge, unprecedented circumstances of President Trump’s two hour, one-on-one meeting with a leader identified as a threat to the United States by President Trump’s own National Security Strategy.”
“When he takes the interpreter’s notes and wants to destroy them so no one can see what was said in written transcript, you know it raises serious questions about the relationship between this president and Putin,” Sen. Dick Durbin said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said if the Post’s report is accurate, Trump “broke all protocol.”
“The American government does not know what was discussed between Trump and Vladimir Putin in that, frankly, pathetic, embarrassing encounter where Trump was kowtowing on the world stage to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki,” Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., plans to seek more information about Trump’s meetings with Putin.
“It’s been several months since Helsinki and we still don’t know what went on in that meeting,” Engel told the Post. “It’s appalling. It just makes you want to scratch your head.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Sunday that he accepted Trump’s denial and said those one-on-one meetings are part of the president’s personal style.
“He likes to create a personal relationship, build that relationship, even rebuild that relationship like he does with other world leaders around,” McCarthy said on “Face the Nation.”
When asked if thought Trump’s interpreter should be asked to testify, McCarthy said, “I want this president to be able to build the relationship, even on a personal level, with all the world leaders.”