By Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg
President Donald Trump’s efforts to hide his conversations with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and new details about the FBI investigation into his ties to Moscow have intensified debate over his relationship with Russia, adding fuel to Democrats’ budding investigations of his presidency and potentially setting up a clash between the White House and Congress.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who now leads the Intelligence Committee as part of the new Democratic House majority, implored his Republican colleagues Sunday to support his effort to obtain notes or testimony from the interpreter in one of the private meetings between Trump and Putin.
“Will they join us now?” Schiff wrote on Twitter. “Shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting ‘America first?’”
The administration appears unlikely to acquiesce to such a demand without a fight.
Trump has repeatedly withheld details of his conversations with Putin, according to current and former U.S. officials, a practice that has left officials blind to the dynamic between the two leaders and intensified questions within the administration over the president’s actions.
That development, first reported by The Washington Post, followed a report in The New York Times that the FBI had earlier begun a counterintelligence investigation on Trump to see whether he had been influenced by Russia when he fired James Comey as FBI director in 2017.
On Sunday, congressional Democrats said the steps Trump took to keep his conversations secret brought forth uncomfortable questions about the relations between the two men and why the U.S. president echoed some of Putin’s positions.
“Why is he so chummy with Vladimir Putin, this man who is a former KGB agent, never been a friend to the United States, invaded our allies, threatens us around the world and tries his damnedest to undermine our elections?” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Why is this President Trump’s best buddy? I don’t get it.”
Trump went so far as to take the notes from the interpreter who worked with him during a private meeting with Putin at the 2017 Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.
A former senior administration official said a number of top figures in the administration sought in the hours and days after the meeting to find out details of what Trump and Putin had discussed. But Trump waved off their queries, leaving the officials to rely solely on a brief readout that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time, had provided to the news media, according to the former official.
Several administration officials asked the interpreter what had been discussed. But the interpreter told them that the president had taken the notes after the meeting, and had instructed the translator not to discuss the meeting, the former official said.
Last year both House and Senate Democrats called on Trump’s interpreters to testify on the president’s meetings with Putin, including the leaders’ July summit in Helsinki. Trump’s news conference in Helsinki, in which he questioned his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election, prompted bipartisan criticism.
Trump’s failure to allow other officials into the room or share notes of the meeting has become something of a Rorschach test inside the government.
For opponents of the president, there are no innocent explanations for Trump’s actions, which are possible evidence that Trump has colluded with Russia, a question at the heart of the special counsel inquiry. For supporters, Trump’s actions are evidence that he must go to extreme lengths to prevent leaks and is a nontraditional politician pursuing new approaches to old problems.
Republicans defended Trump on Sunday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that any notion the president was a threat to U.S. security “is absolutely ludicrous.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House minority leader, defended Trump’s choice to talk privately with Putin or other leaders.
“I know what the president likes to do,” McCarthy said on “Face the Nation.” “He likes to create a personal relationship, build that relationship, even rebuild that relationship, like he does with other world leaders around.”