It’s been a rough month for anyone still pretending that President Trump’s relationship with Russia is on the level.
The Financial Times reported on Tuesday that when Trump spoke with Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in November, no U.S. official was on hand to take notes. The only other two people present for the conversation, which lasted roughly 15 minutes, were First Lady Melania Trump and Putin’s translator. The group was reportedly “among the last to leave” their table. Though the White House had acknowledged that the two spoke informally while in Argentina, the conversation was “longer and more substantive” than had been implied previously. The White House also failed to note that no official was present as the two leaders spoke.
The news comes just weeks after the Washington Post reported that Trump went out of his way to hide details of his conversation with Putin at the 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Though a U.S. translator was present at that meeting, Trump confiscated her notes and told her not to discuss what was said with any other administration officials (then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was also present). During a dinner that night, Trump sought out Putin for a second, informal meeting that lasted close to an hour. He didn’t tell advisers about this second meeting, and the White House didn’t confirm it took place until after it was reported on days later. While flying home to Washington, D.C., the next day, Trump dictated a false statement about Russian adoptions for Donald Trump, Jr. to give to the New York Times, which was seeking an explanation for why Trump’s eldest met with a delegation led by a Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower the previous summer. It was later revealed that Trump, Jr., was attempting to obtain damaging information about Hillary Clinton from Veselnitskaya.
The off-the-record conversation in Argentina last fall wasn’t the first time Trump and Putin met in in 2018. While in Brussels, Belgium, for the NATO summit in July, the two world leaders spoke privately for nearly two hours. The only other American in the room was a State Department translator named Marina Gross. What was discussed is a mystery, but there is little Trump could do that would please Putin more than withdrawing the United States from NATO, the alliance of Western nations formed primarily to prevent Russia from over-extending its military influence. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Trump “repeatedly” discussed pull the U.S. out of NATO.
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Democrats responded to the news of Trump’s efforts to conceal the nature of his meetings with Putin by renewing calls for Gross to be subpoenaed.
Last year, we sought to obtain the interpreter’s notes or testimony, from the private meeting between Trump and Putin. The Republicans on our committee voted us down. Will they join us now? Shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting “America first?” https://t.co/hzgfTRl653
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) January 13, 2019
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) didn’t take well to the suggestion. “Absolutely not,” he told reporters when asked about the prospect. “That will be the last time you ever have a foreign leader meet with the president of the United States. I can tell you that there may be times when we need to do that. I can’t imagine how that would affect future presidents and their ability to talk to foreign leaders.”
"Absolutely not," Lindsey Graham said when asked if he'd support having Marina Gross, the American translator in Trump's meeting with Putin, testify before Congress.
He said that precedent could prevent foreign leaders from wanting to meet with future U.S. presidents privately pic.twitter.com/DqQD7I6HM5
— POLITICO (@politico) July 19, 2018
There may be a world in which Graham has a point, one that doesn’t contain an abundance of evidence that something may be inappropriate about Trump’s relationship with Russia, an adversarial nation that is actively trying to subvert American democracy. It’s probably a better idea than not to do everything possible to try to figure out whether this is the case. The FBI agreed in May 2017 when it opened a counterintelligence investigation to determine whether Trump was operating on Putin’s behalf. That investigation’s existence was revealed earlier this month, as well. So was the tidbit that the Trump Organization’s negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow persisted throughout Trump’s presidential campaign.
Again, it’s been a long month for anyone trying to defend Trump’s relationship with Russia.