President Donald Trump has on at least one occasion when meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin taken “possession of the notes of his own interpreter and [instructed] the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials,” according to current and former U.S. officials who spoke with The Washington Post. They say the interpreter refused to discuss the meeting but conceded that Trump told Putin “I believe you” when Putin denied any Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
The officials said the president seized the interpreter’s notes after a meeting with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany, that was also attended by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; they learned what Trump had done when a White House adviser and a senior State Department official “sought information from the interpreter beyond a readout shared by Tillerson.”
A White House spokesman said the Trump administration “has imposed significant new sanctions in response to Russian malign activities,” adding that Tillerson in 2017 “gave a fulsome readout of the meeting immediately afterward to other U.S. officials in a private setting, as well as a readout to the press.”
Tillerson told the Post in an email that he “was present for the entirety of the two presidents’ official bilateral meeting in Hamburg,” but declined to provide further details. At the time of the meeting in 2017, he had told the press Trump had “pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement” in the U.S. presidential election and that Putin “denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past,” though he refused to say whether Trump had chosen to side with the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin did interfere.
Senior administration officials say they’ve never been able to get a full account of the meeting from anyone, even from Tillerson, and that the lack of verifiable records of Trump’s meetings with the Russian leader has sometimes forced them to rely on U.S. intelligence reports “tracking reactions in the Kremlin.” In fact, there are no detailed records of Trump’s meetings with Putin in five locations over the past two years.
“We were frustrated because we didn’t get a readout,” a former senior administration official said. “The State Department and [National Security Council] were never comfortable” with Trump’s interactions with Putin, the official said. “God only knows what they were going to talk about or agree to.”
Trump, in an interview with Fox News, denied reports that he had taken possession of his interpreter’s notes.
“I’m not keeping anything under wraps, I couldn’t care less. I mean, it’s so ridiculous. These people make it up,” he told Fox News host Jeanine Pirro. “I have many one-on-one [meetings], nobody ever says anything about it, but with Putin they say, ‘Oh what did they talk about?’ We talked about very positive things.” He added: “Anybody could have listened to that meeting, that meeting is open for grabs. The whole Russia thing, it’s a hoax, it’s a terrible hoax, everybody knows it.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also backed up the president, saying in a statement that “The Washington Post story is so outrageously inaccurate it doesn’t even warrant a response.”
“The liberal media has wasted two years trying to manufacture a fake collusion scandal instead of reporting on the fact that unlike President Obama, who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia,” she said.