US President Donald Trump has taken great pains to hide the details of his private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin from top members of his own administration, the Washington Post reported Saturday night.
According to the report, in a break from standard policy and the practices of former presidents, Trump has denied top advisers detailed information of several meetings with the Russian leader, whom US agencies have accused of seeking to undermine American democracy.
It said top officials in the State Department and National Security Council have been unable to learn the particulars of at least two meetings — one in Hamburg in July 2017 and the other in Helsinki in July 2018.
Following the Hamburg meeting, the US leader took away the notes of his interpreter and instructed the person to keep quiet on what was said, the paper reported. Then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson sat in on that meeting, but also failed to provide top officials with any details on its contents beyond an official readout issued after the sit-down.
At the Helsinki summit Putin and Trump were joined only by their interpreters and, as in Hamburg, aides and top advisers were unable to receive a detailed account of what was said.
Trump faced widespread criticism following the Helsinki summit from both Democrats and Republicans, with his performance at a press conference alongside Putin — in which he sided with Moscow over his own government’s assertion that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 US election, and heaped praise on the Russia strongman — roundly condemned by allies and critics alike.
Administration officials have been unable to glean details of at least three other public interactions between the leaders over the past two years.
In the past US presidents have made great effort to have their meetings with Russian leaders well documented, to allow top diplomats and security officials to study what was said and possible implications.
The president’s secrecy “is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous,” Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton.
“It handicaps the US government — the experts and advisers and Cabinet officers who are there to serve — and it certainly gives Putin much more scope to manipulate Trump.”
Speaking to Fox News after the Washington Post story was published, Trump dismissed the notion that he had taken steps to stifle the meetings’ contents.
Trump also raged on Saturday at a New York Times report according to which law enforcement officials became so alarmed by his 2017 dismissal of FBI director James Comey that they began probing whether he had been working for Russia against US interests.
Trump blasted the FBI on Twitter, insisting it acted “for no reason & with no proof” when it opened the investigation.
The New York Times reported that the FBI launched the previously undisclosed counterintelligence investigation to determine whether Trump posed a national security threat, at the same time that it opened a criminal probe into possible obstruction of justice by the president.
The investigation was subsequently folded into the broader probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and possible collaboration by the Trump campaign.
No evidence has publicly emerged that Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian officials, the Times said.
“Wow, just learned in the Failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!” Trump tweeted.
According to Trump, “the FBI was in complete turmoil… because of Comey’s poor leadership” and the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server to send some government emails.
“My firing of James Comey was a great day for America,” Trump said, describing the former FBI director as “a Crooked Cop who is being totally protected by his best friend, Bob Mueller.”
Asked in a late Saturday interview with Fox News whether he had ever worked for Russia, Trump replied: “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked… I think it the most insulting article I’ve ever had written and if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing.”
Such standard reactions from Trump “do nothing to address the incredibly serious nature of these allegations,” said Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
“There is no reason to doubt the seriousness or professionalism of the FBI,” Nadler said in a statement that added that his committee “will take steps to better understand both the president’s actions and the FBI’s response to that behavior, and to make certain that these career investigators are protected from President Trump’s increasingly unhinged attacks.”
The Times said that the FBI had been suspicious of Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign. But it held off on opening an investigation until the president sacked Comey, who refused to pledge allegiance to Trump and roll back the nascent Russia investigation.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called the Times report “absurd” and said Comey was fired for being “a disgraced partisan hack.” She also disputed that Trump had ever been soft on Russia.
“Unlike president Obama, who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia,” Sanders said.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt” and views it as an attempt to besmirch the legitimacy of his presidency.
Mueller has indicted 33 people, including members of Russia’s GRU military intelligence, and chalked up convictions against some of the president’s close associates.
Trump’s ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his Moscow ties.
His former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been sentenced to three years in prison for multiple crimes, including felony violations of campaign finance laws that prosecutors allege were carried out under Trump’s direction.
Trump’s former presidential campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has been convicted in one case brought by Mueller and pleaded guilty in another, over financial crimes related to his work in Ukraine before the 2016 campaign, and for witness tampering.
Cellphone records show that Cohen was near Prague during the summer of 2016, supporting claims that he met there with Russian officials during the presidential election campaign, McClatchy news service has reported.
Cohen, who will testify in Congress on February 7, insists that he has never been to Prague, but added in a tweet: “#Mueller knows everything!”