President Donald 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.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is thought to be in the final stages of an investigation that has focused largely on whether Trump or his associates conspired with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. The new details about Trump’s continued secrecy underscore the extent to how little is known about his communications with Putin since becoming president.
After this story was published online, Trump said in an interview late Saturday with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro that he did not take particular steps to conceal his private meetings with Putin and attacked The Washington Post and its owner Jeff Bezos.
He said he talked with Putin about Israel, among other subjects. “Anyone could have listened to that meeting. That meeting is open for grabs,” he said.
When Pirro asked if he is or has ever been working for Russia, Trump responded, “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked.”
Former U.S. officials said that Trump’s behavior is at odds with the known practices of previous presidents, who have relied on senior aides to witness meetings and take comprehensive notes then shared with other officials and departments.
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.”
A White House spokesman disputed that characterization and said that the Trump administration has sought to “improve the relationship with Russia” after the Obama administration “pursued a flawed ‘reset’ policy that sought engagement for the sake of engagement.”
The Trump administration “has imposed significant new sanctions in response to Russian malign activities,” said the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and noted that Tillerson in 2017 “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.”
Trump allies said the president thinks the presence of subordinates impairs his ability to establish a rapport with Putin, and that his desire for secrecy may also be driven by embarrassing leaks that occurred early in his presidency.
The meeting in Hamburg happened several months after The Washington Post and other news organizations revealed details about what Trump had told senior Russian officials during a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Trump disclosed classified information about a terror plot, called former FBI director James Comey a “nut job,” and said that firing Comey had removed “great pressure” on his relationship with Russia.
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.
Trump generally has allowed aides to listen to his phone conversations with Putin, although Russia has often been first to disclose those calls when they occur and release statements characterizing them in broad terms favorable to the Kremlin.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been reluctant to call attention to such reports during Trump’s presidency because they have at times included comments by foreign officials disparaging the president or his advisers, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a former senior administration official said.
“There was more of a reticence in the intelligence community going after those kinds of communications and reporting them,” said a former administration official who worked in the White House. “The feedback tended not to be positive.”
Previous presidents have required senior aides to attend meetings with adversaries including the Russian president largely to ensure that there are not misunderstandings and that others in the administration are able to follow up on any agreements or plans. Detailed notes that Talbot took of Clinton’s meetings with Yeltsin are among hundreds of documents declassified and released last year.