The unusually secretive way the president has handled these meetings has left his own administration guessing what happened and piqued the interest of investigators.
By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON — The first time they met was in Germany. President Trump took his interpreter’s notes afterward and ordered him not to disclose what he heard to anyone. Later that night, at a dinner, Mr. Trump pulled up a seat next to President Vladimir V. Putin to talk without any American witnesses at all.
Their third encounter was in Vietnam when Mr. Trump seemed to take Mr. Putin’s word that he had not interfered in American elections. A formal summit meeting followed in Helsinki, Finland, where the two leaders kicked out everyone but the interpreters. Most recently, they chatted in Buenos Aires after Mr. Trump said they would not meet because of Russian aggression.
Mr. Trump has adamantly insisted there was “no collusion” with Russia during his 2016 presidential campaign. But each of the five times he has met with Mr. Putin since taking office, he has fueled suspicions about their relationship. The unusually secretive way he has handled these meetings has left many in his own administration guessing what happened and piqued the interest of investigators.
“What’s disconcerting is the desire to hide information from your own team,” said Andrew S. Weiss, who was a Russia adviser to President Bill Clinton. “The fact that Trump didn’t want the State Department or members of the White House team to know what he was talking with Putin about suggests it was not about advancing our country’s national interest but something more problematic.”
The mystery surrounding the meetings seems to have drawn attention from the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is examining ties between the president and Russia. And it has generated a furor in Congress, where Democrats are pushing to subpoena the notes of the president’s interpreters or perhaps the interpreters themselves.
Veterans of past administrations could not recall a precedent for a president meeting alone with an adversary and keeping so many of his own advisers from being briefed on what was said. When they meet with foreign leaders, presidents typically want at least one aide in the room — not just an interpreter — to avoid misunderstandings later. Memorandums of conversation, called Memcons, are drafted and details are shared with officials who have reasons to know what was said.
“All five of the presidents whom I worked for, Republicans and Democrats, wanted a word-for-word set of notes, if only to protect the integrity of the American side of the conversation against later manipulation by the Soviets or the Russians,” said Victoria J. Nuland, a career diplomat who worked for Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton, among others.
That would seem an even greater imperative for Mr. Trump, who knew there were questions about his relationship with Mr. Putin given that American intelligence agencies concluded that Moscow tried to help elect him.
“If any president would have wanted witnesses and protection, it ought to have been Donald Trump,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and adviser to four presidents, most recently as President George W. Bush’s State Department policy planning director. “And yet he chose not to, and that adds fuel to the fire that something here is not right.”
Mr. Trump’s defenders acknowledge Mr. Trump’s approach does not resemble the way his predecessors operated, but note that he has been an unorthodox president in so many ways that it does not prove anything untoward. And, they say, he has reason to feel burned since previous interactions with foreign leaders have leaked, including full transcripts of telephone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia published in The Washington Post.
“Of course I was disappointed with Helsinki, but I do not just look at how the president handles specific meetings with Putin,” said Luke Coffey, a foreign policy scholar at the Heritage Foundation. “Instead, I’m most interested in what the actual policies are coming out of the administration.”
He cited additional sanctions, weapons sent to Ukraine, increased Pentagon spending meant to counter Russian aggression and opposition to a new Russian pipeline to Europe. All that, he said, “is proof that this is one of the toughest administrations on Russia since Reagan.”
The question of Mr. Trump’s meetings with Mr. Putin was revived by a pair of news stories last weekend. The New York Times reported that after Mr. Trump fired the F.B.I. director James B. Comey in 2017, the bureau opened a counterintelligence investigation to explore whether the president was acting on Russia’s behalf. The Post reported that Mr. Trump had gone to unusual lengths to conceal details of his talks with Mr. Putin, including taking his interpreter’s notes.
The White House dismissed the stories as unfair smears. “The liberal media has wasted two years trying to manufacture a fake collusion scandal instead of reporting the fact that unlike President Obama, who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.
Mr. Trump has been in contact with Mr. Putin since shortly after his election in November 2016. Mr. Putin sent him a congratulatory telegram and the two spoke by telephone on Nov. 14.
They spoke a few more times before meeting in person for the first time as presidents on July 7, 2017, in Hamburg, Germany, during a Group of 20, or G-20, economic summit meeting. Aside from interpreters, the only others in the room were Rex W. Tillerson, then the secretary of state, and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
The inaugural meeting came at a sensitive time. Mr. Trump’s team learned that day that one of the biggest secrets of his presidential bid was about to become public: At the height of the campaign, his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had met at Trump Tower with Russians on the promise of obtaining dirt on Mrs. Clinton from the Russian government. Mr. Trump’s team was scrambling to respond to a request for comment by The Times.
Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin that day lasted more than two hours. Afterward, Mr. Trump took his interpreter’s notes and instructed the interpreter not to brief anyone. Mr. Tillerson told reporters that the leaders discussed everything from Syria to Ukraine, but he also described “a very robust and lengthy exchange” on the election… continue reading: Trump and Putin Have Met Five Times. What Was Said Is a Mystery.