SALT LAKE CITY — As the government shutdown stretches on and negotiations between President Donald Trump and House Democrats remain at a standstill, attention has shifted to two new developments related to the Russia investigation: Trump’s unwillingness to disclose notes taken at private meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and new insights about the ongoing FBI investigation into Trump’s relationship with Russia.
What’s going on?: On Friday, The New York Times reported that days after Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey in May 2017, the intelligence agency opened an investigation into Trump deeper than previously revealed with the intention of uncovering whether the president was working directly for the Kremlin.
- The investigation was two-pronged, with counterintelligence and criminal dimensions.
- The criminal aspect, which sought to answer if Trump’s firing of Comey was an obstruction of justice into another ongoing FBI investigation into whether Russia had meddled with the 2016 presidential election, was already public knowledge.
- The counterintelligence aspect was first reported Friday by the Times. It aimed to discover whether Trump’s actions posed a potential threat to national security.
- On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that Trump has refused to share notes from a series of private meetings held with Putin and instructed translators and interpreters not to reveal details from the meetings. “As a result,” the Post reported, “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.”
Trump's response: Trump took to Twitter to respond to both articles.
- On Saturday, he fired back at the Times:
- On Sunday, he took the Post and its owner Jeff Bezos, who is the CEO of Amazon, to task:
In addition, Trump told reporters Monday at the White House, “I never worked for Russia.”
Here's a look at what we know about both the FBI investigation and the transparency of Trump's meetings with Putin. We'll put each event into context and clarify what information we know — and what we don't.
1. The FBI investigation: Context
- After Comey was fired, special counsel Robert Mueller took over the investigation into Trump’s dealings with Russia. Comey had begun the first part of the investigation, regarding potential collusion between Russia and Trump's campaign, in March 2017. The second investigation, into Trump's potential obstruction of the first investigation and whether Trump was working for Russia, had been opened just days before Mueller took over, according to the Times. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is overseeing the investigation.
- The FBI had already been concerned that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in order to win the 2016 election. A series of events sparked this concern, including a comment Trump made at July 2016 event when he asked Russia to hack the emails of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to the Times. Russian efforts to hack into Clinton’s email database began that same night, according to an indictment of 12 Russians based on Mueller’s investigation findings, the Times reported. However, there is no proof that Russia’s decision to hack Clinton’s emails was based on Trump’s comment.
- In addition, Trump sparked more concern among FBI officials when, on two occasions, he linked his decision to fire Comey to the ongoing Russia investigation, according to the Times and CNN.
- The first occasion was Trump's memo to Comey informing him of his dismissal. Although Rosenstein recommended that Trump fire Comey based on his inept handling of the investigation into Clinton’s emails, according to an official memo obtained by the Times, Trump added a sentence about the Russia investigation in the memo, writing: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
- The second occasion was in an NBC News interview two days after Comey left the FBI. Trump told host Lester Holt, “When I decided to just do it (fire Comey), I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia, is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election they should’ve won.”
- If, following the logic of the memo and NBC interview, Trump had fired Comey in order to complicate or halt the Russia investigation, that could pose a threat to national security, FBI officials felt. “Not only would it be an issue of obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security,” James Baker, who was the FBI’s general counsel until late 2017, told Congress in a transcript reported by the Times and confirmed by CNN.
Conclusions: Although there is proof that people close to Trump, including members of his campaign, have ties to Russia, there is, as of May 2017, no hard evidence that Trump and Russia colluded on the 2016 campaign, as recently reported by The Hill and Fox News.
- As reported by the Times, it is unclear if the counterintelligence portion of Mueller's investigation is still ongoing. It is also unclear what information he has uncovered for that particular investigation, if any.
- The Times also pointed out, “No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials” in regard to his decision to fire Comey.
2. Private meetings between Trump and Putin: Context
- The Washington Post reported Sunday that Trump “has gone to extraordinary lengths” to keep details of his meetings with Putin private. This has resulted in a spate of highly concerned officials who feel they lack reliable information about the U.S.-Russia relationship.
- Trump has met with Putin in person at five locations in the last two years, according to the Post.
- Some of the most controversial encounters were in Hamburg, Germany, and Helsinki, Finland. Trump talked twice with Putin at the 2017 G-20 conference in Hamburg, once in a meeting attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and then privately at a banquet with only Putin’s interpreter in attendance. After the meeting where Tillerson was present, Trump kept his interpreter’s notes for himself and requested the interpreter to not disclose meeting details. He also held a two-hour private meeting with Putin in Helsinki in summer 2018, allowing no one but interpreters to be present.
- Tillerson declined to share details with officials of the Hamburg meeting beyond a brief readout.
- Trump wants to keep meeting transcripts private because of negative press that has followed prior leaks, the Post and Fox News reported.
- Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who attended a series of meetings between Bill Clinton and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, told the Post that such a level of secrecy “is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous. ... 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.”
- In a Saturday conversation with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Trump said he did not hide information about his conversations with Putin and was just following protocol.
Conclusions: It is unclear whether Trump has withheld notes or transcripts from his meetings with Putin on more than one occasion.21 comments on this story
- At the Hamburg meeting, both Tillerson and the interpreter confirmed that Trump asked Putin if Russia had meddled in the 2016 election and that Putin denied there had been any Russian interference, according to the Post and Fox News. Trump also said the two presidents discussed policies for Syria and Israel.
- It is unclear whether Trump’s interpreter in Helsinki, Marina Gross, can or should be subpoenaed or forced to hand over her notes to obtain more clarity on what Trump and Putin have discussed, but the issue is up for debate, as discussed in a recent column in the Atlantic.