Trump on collision course with Congress after hiding conversations with Putin

Current and former US officials say Trump has repeatedly withheld details of conversations with Putin

Julian E. Barnes,Matthew Rosenberg
Monday 14 January 2019 11:04 GMT
Donald Trump denies working for Russia, lashing out over New York Times report

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Donald Trump’s efforts to hide his conversations with president Vladimir Putin of Russia and new details about the FBI inquiry into his ties to Moscow have intensified debate over his relationship with Russia, adding fuel to Democrats’ budding investigations of his presidency and potentially setting up a clash between the White House and Congress.

Representative Adam Schiff of California, who now leads the Intelligence Committee as part of the new Democratic House majority, implored his Republican colleagues Sunday to support his effort to obtain notes or testimony from the interpreter in one of the private meetings between Mr Trump and Mr Putin.

“Will they join us now?” Mr Schiff wrote on Twitter. “Shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting ‘America first?’”

The administration appears unlikely to acquiesce to such a demand without a fight.

Mr Trump has repeatedly withheld details of his conversations with Mr Putin, according to current and former American officials, a practice that has left others blind to the dynamic between the two leaders and intensified questions within the administration over the president’s actions.

That development, first reported by The Washington Post, followed a report in The New York Times that the FBI had earlier begun a counterintelligence investigation on Mr Trump to see whether he had been influenced by Russia when he fired James Comey as FBI director in 2017.

On Sunday, congressional Democrats said the steps Mr Trump took to keep his conversations secret brought forth uncomfortable questions about the relations between the two men and why the American president echoed some of Mr Putin’s positions.

“Why is he so chummy with Vladimir Putin, this man who is a former KGB agent, never been a friend to the United States, invaded our allies, threatens us around the world and tries his damnedest to undermine our elections?” Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said on ABC’s This Week. “Why is this President Trump’s best buddy? I don’t get it.”

Mr Trump went so far as to take the notes from the interpreter who worked with him during a private meeting with Mr Putin at the 2017 Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.

A former senior administration official said a number of top figures in the administration sought in the hours and days after the meeting to find out details of what Mr Trump and Mr Putin had discussed. But Mr Trump waved off their queries, leaving the officials to rely solely on a brief readout that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time, had provided to the news media, according to the former official.

Several administration officials asked the interpreter what had been discussed. But the interpreter told them that the president had taken the notes after the meeting, and had instructed the translator not to discuss the meeting, the former official said.

Last year both House and Senate Democrats called on Mr Trump’s interpreters to testify on the president’s meetings with Mr Putin, including the leaders’ July summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland. Mr Trump’s news conference in Helsinki, in which he questioned his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election, prompted bipartisan criticism.

Mr Trump’s failure to allow other officials into the room or share notes of the meeting has become something of a Rorschach test inside the government.

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For opponents of the president, there are no innocent explanations for Mr Trump’s actions, which are possible evidence that Mr Trump has colluded with Russia, a question at the heart of the special counsel inquiry. For supporters, Mr Trump’s actions are evidence that he must go to extreme lengths to prevent leaks and is a nontraditional politician pursuing new approaches to old problems.

Republicans defended Mr Trump on Sunday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS’s Face the Nation that any notion the president was a threat to American security “is absolutely ludicrous.”

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, defended Mr Trump’s choice to talk privately with Mr. Putin or other leaders.

“I know what the president likes to do,” Mr McCarthy said on Face the Nation. “He likes to create a personal relationship, build that relationship, even rebuild that relationship, like he does with other world leaders around.”

The FBI counterintelligence investigation into Mr Trump’s ties to Russia was taken over by Robert Mueller, the special counsel. While it is not clear what Mr Mueller has done with the investigation, there are some clues that he has pursued at least parts of it.

While many of the questions Mr Mueller submitted to Mr Trump were focused on accusations of obstruction of justice against the president, others had to do with the president’s relationship with Russia.

Mr Mueller asked Mr Trump whether he had any discussions during the campaign about any meetings with Mr Putin and whether he spoke to others about American sanctions against Russia.

While Mr Trump did not answer Mr Mueller’s questions about obstruction, he did answer the questions about Russia, although what the president said is not known.

The revelation about the earlier FBI counterintelligence investigation prompted Republicans to renew their criticism of the bureau.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and fierce defender of Mr Trump, told Fox News he was going to ask Christopher Wray, the FBI director, if the bureau had begun a counterintelligence investigation of Mr Trump.

Mr Graham said there should be checks inside the bureau to prevent such an investigation.

“I find it astonishing, and to me, it tells me a lot about the people running the FBI,” Mr Graham said. “I don’t trust them as far as I throw them.”

As Democrats press ahead in their investigation of Mr Trump’s meetings with Mr Putin, it is not clear what information they will be able to extract from the White House.

There are no reports inside the government on what Mr Trump and Mr Putin discussed in their meetings, current and former officials said.

Without official detailed notes about Mr Trump’s conversations, senior officials in the administration have had to rely on intelligence reports about what the Russians were saying to one another after the meeting. There are limits to what officials could glean from the intelligence, current and former officials said. And the Russians could hardly be considered reliable narrators, even with one another.

While that frustrated some in the government, the former senior administration official said he was not unsympathetic to Mr Trump’s predicament. The official said the president feared that whatever he said to Mr Putin would be twisted by critics.

But because access to meetings and transcripts was tightened after early leaks, some officials believed Mr Trump’s decision to take the notes was too extreme and raised questions about what he was trying to keep private, the former official said.

The New York Times

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