President Trump did his best to hide details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including at least one opportunity to take possession of his interpreter's notes and instruct the linguist not to discuss what had happened with other administration officials, former and former US officials have said.
Trump did it after a meeting with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg, which was attended by then then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. US officials learned of Trump's actions when a White House advisor and a senior State Department official looked for information from the interpreter over a reading shared by Tillerson.
The constraints imposed by Trump are part of a broader model of the president to protect his communications with Putin from public opinion and also preventing high-ranking officials in his administration from fully knowing what he has said to one. of the main US opponents.
As a result, US officials have said that 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 every presidency, not to mention one that Russia tried to install through what US intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of electoral interference.
Special adviser Robert S. Mueller III is thought to be in the final stages of an investigation that has largely focused on the fact that Trump or his associates conspired with Russia during the 201
Former US officials have said that Trump's behavior is in disagreement with the practices of previous presidents, who have relied on senior helpers to attend meetings and take complete notes then shared with other officials and departments.
Trump's secret surrounding Putin "is not only unusual by historical standards, it's outrageous," said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state now at the Brookings Institution, who has attended more than a dozen meetings between President Bill Clinton and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the years & # 90; "It borders the US government – experts and councilors and government officials who are there to serve [the president] – and it certainly gives Putin much more room to manipulate Trump."
A White House spokesman challenged this characterization and claimed that the Trump administration tried to "improve relations with Russia" after the Obama administration "pursued a policy of" reset " "Imperfect who sought commitment to involvement."
The Trump administration "imposed new and significant sanctions in response to Russian malign activity," said the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and noted that Tillerson in 2017 "gave a wonderful reading of the # 39; meeting soon after to other US officials in a private environment, in addition to a reading to the press ".
Trump's allies have said that the president thinks that the presence of subordinates compromises his ability to establish a relationship with Putin and that his desire for secrecy could also be driven by embarrassing escapes that occurred at the time. beginning of his presidency.
The meeting in Hamburg happened several months after The Washington Post and other press organizations revealed details about what Trump had said to Russian officials during a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Trump revealed classified information about a terrorist plot, called former director of FBI James B. Comey, a "crazy job", and said that the fire Comey had removed "great pressure" on his relationship with Russia.
after this and other incidents, and abruptly interrupted the distribution to the National Security Council reminder on the interactions of the president with foreign leaders.
"Over time it has become increasingly difficult, I think, because of a sense from Trump himself that the loss of transcripts of calls were harmful to him," said a former administration official.
High Democratic MPs describe the cloak of secrecy surrounding Trump's meetings with Putin as unprecedented and disturbing.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (DN.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber, said in an interview that his group will form an investigative subcommittee whose objectives will include the research of the State Department registers on the meetings of Trump with Putin, including a door meeting with the Russian leader in Helsinki last summer.
"It's been several months since Helsinki and we still do not know what happened at that meeting," Engel said. "It's scary, it just makes you want to scratch your head."
Concerns have been exacerbated by the actions and positions Trump has assumed as president who are seen as favorable to the Kremlin. He dismissed Russia's electoral interference as a "hoax", he suggested that Russia had the right to annex Crimea, repeatedly attacked NATO allies, resisted efforts to impose sanctions on Moscow and began to snatch US forces from Syria – a move that critics see as
At the same time, Trump's decision to fire Comey and other attempts to curb ongoing investigations in Russia led the office in May 2017 to launch a counterintelligence investigation to understand if he was trying to help Russia and if so, why, a first step reported by the New York Times.
It is unclear whether Trump has taken notes from the performers on other occasions, but several officials have said that they have never managed to get a reliable reading of the President's two hours meeting in Helsinki. Unlike Hamburg, Trump did not allow any Cabinet official or helpers to be in the room for that conversation.
Trump also had other private conversations with Putin at meetings of global leaders outside the presence of helpers. He spoke at length with Putin during a banquet in the same world conference of 2017 in Hamburg, where he was present only the interpreter of Putin. Trump also had a brief conversation with Putin at a Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires last month.
Trump generally allowed the assistants to listen to his telephone conversations with Putin, although Russia was often the first to reveal those calls when they occur and issue statements that characterize them in general terms favorable to the Kremlin.
In an e-mail, Tillerson said that "he was present for the entire bilateral official meeting of the two presidents in Hamburg", but refused to discuss the meeting and did not answer questions about the fact that Trump has instructed the performer to remain silent or have taken the interpreter's notes.
At a later press conference, Tillerson said that the Trump-Putin meeting lasted more than two hours, covered the war in Syria and other arguments, and that Trump had "put President Putin under pressure in more than two years." opportunity on Russian involvement "in electoral interference. "President Putin has denied such involvement, as I think he did in the past," said Tillerson.
Tillerson refused to say during the press conference whether Trump had rejected Putin's request or had stated that he believed US intelligence agencies believed that Russia had interfered.
Tillerson's account disagrees with the one and only detail that other administration officials were able to get from the interpreter, officials said. Although the interpreter refused to discuss the meeting, officials said, he admitted that Putin had denied any Russian involvement in the US elections and that Trump responded by saying, "I believe you."
Trump administration officials said that White House officials, then National Security Advisor, HR McMaster, never managed to get a full report of the meeting, not even from part of Tillerson.
"We were frustrated because we did not receive a reading," said a former administration official. "The State Department and [National Security Council] never felt at ease" with Trump's interactions with Putin, the official said. "God only knows what they would talk or accept".
Because of the absence of reliable records of Trump's conversations with Putin, officials sometimes had to rely on reports from US intelligence agencies that monitored the reaction in the Kremlin.
Previous presidents and senior consultants have often studied these reports to assess whether they had achieved their goals during meetings and to get insights for future conversations.
Intelligence agencies were reluctant to draw attention to such reports during Trump's presidency because they sometimes included comments from foreign officials who despised the president or his advisors, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, said a former administration official.  "There was more of a reticence in the intelligence community that was pursuing those types of communications and reporting them," said a former administration official who worked at the White House. "Feedback tended not to be positive."
The interpreter in Hamburg revealed the restrictions that Trump had imposed when he was approached by hotel administration officials where the US delegation was located, officials said.
Among the officials who asked for the details of the meeting were Fiona Hill, the senior advisor of Russia at the NSC, and John Heffern, who at that time served as an assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment from the interpreter. Heffern, who withdrew from the state in 2017, declined to comment.
Through a spokesperson, Hill refused a request for an interview.
There are conflicting reports on the purpose of the conversation with the interpreter, with some officials saying that Hill was among those informed by Tillerson and that he was simply looking for more nuanced information from the interpreter.
Others said the goal was to obtain a more meaningful reading of the poor information provided by Tillerson. "I remember that Fiona told me," a former officer said. A second former official in Hamburg said that Tillerson "did not offer a briefing or called the ambassador or someone together." He did not speak to senior staff, "although he gave a reading to the press."
A similar problem arose in Helsinki, setting for the first formal US-Russia summit since Trump became president. Hill, National Security Adviser John Bolton and other US officials took part in a preliminary meeting that included Trump, Putin and other senior Russian officials.
But Trump and Putin then met for two hours in private, accompanied only by their interpreters. Trump's interpreter, Marina Gross, could be seen emerging from the pages of notes.
Alarmed by the secrecy of Trump's meeting with Putin, several legislators subsequently tried to force Gross to testify before Congress on what he witnessed. Others have argued that forcing it to do so would violate the impartial role played by interpreters in diplomacy. Gross was not forced to testify. She was identified when members of Congress tried to talk to her. The interpreter in Hamburg has not been identified.
During a joint press conference with Putin later, Trump acknowledged that he had discussed Syrian policy and other topics, but he also flung out the federal media and investigators, and seemed to reject the findings of US intelligence agencies claiming to having been persuaded by the "powerful" denial of Putin's electoral interference
Previous presidents have requested senior assistants to attend meetings with their adversaries including the Russian president to a large extent to ensure that there are no misunderstandings and that other administration are able to follow on any agreements or plans. Detailed notes that Talbot took Clinton's meetings with Eltsin are among hundreds of declassified and released documents last year.
John Hudson, Josh Dawsey and Julie Tate contributed to this relationship.