President Trump’s efforts to hide his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and new details about the F.B.I. inquiry 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
.. Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, 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 Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin.
“Will they join us now?” Mr. 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.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly withheld details of his conversations with Mr. Putin, according to current and former American 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... On Sunday, congressional Democrats said the steps Mr. Trump took to keep his conversations secret brought forth uncomfortable questions about the relations between the two men and why the American president echoed some of Mr. Putin’s positions.
“Why is he so chummy with Vladimir Putin, this man who is a former K.G.B. 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?” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Why is this President Trump’s best buddy? I don’t get it.”
Mr. Trump went so far as to take the notes from the interpreter who worked with him during a private meeting with Mr. 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 Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin had discussed. But Mr. Trump waved off their queries, leaving the officials to rely solely on a brief readout that Rex W. 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...Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s actions, which are possible evidence that Mr. Trump has colluded with Russia, a question at the heart of the special counsel inquiry. For supporters, Mr. 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 Mr. Trump on Sunday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that any notion the president was a threat to American security “is absolutely ludicrous.”
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, defended Mr. Trump’s choice to talk privately with Mr. Putin or other leaders.
“I know what the president likes to do,” Mr. 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.”.. Mr. Mueller asked Mr. Trump whether he had any discussions during the campaign about any meetings with Mr. Putin and whether he spoke to others about American sanctions against Russia... The revelation about the earlier F.B.I. counterintelligence investigation prompted Republicans to renew their criticism of the bureau.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and fierce defender of Mr. Trump, told Fox News he was going to ask Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, if the bureau had begun a counterintelligence investigation of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Graham said there should be checks inside the bureau to prevent such an investigation.
“I find it astonishing, and to me, it tells me a lot about the people running the F.B.I.,” Mr. Graham said. “I don’t trust them as far as I throw them.”.. Without official detailed notes about Mr. Trump’s conversations, senior officials in the administration have had to rely on intelligence reports about what the Russians were saying to one another after the meeting. There are limits to what officials could glean from the intelligence, current and former officials said. And the Russians could hardly be considered reliable narrators, even with one another.
While that frustrated some in the government, the former senior administration official said he was not unsympathetic to Mr. Trump’s predicament. The official said the president feared that whatever he said to Mr. Putin would be twisted by critics.
But because access to meetings and transcripts was tightened after early leaks, some officials believed Mr. Trump’s decision to take the notes was too extreme and raised questions about what he was trying to keep private, the former official said.
The special counsel is connecting the dots and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the president.a flurry of recent activity this past week all points in the same direction: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will likely implicate the president, his campaign, and his close associates in aiding and abetting a Russian conspiracy against the United States to undermine the 2016 election.First, Mueller has clearly identified collusion in the
- efforts of Trump aides and associates to contact WikiLeaks. In a draft plea agreement provided to conservative operative Jerome Corsi, Mueller details how Roger Stone, who the special counsel notes was in frequent contact with Donald Trump and senior campaign officials, directed Corsi to connect with WikiLeaks about the trove of stolen materials it received from Russia.
- Corsi subsequently communicated WikiLeaks’ release plan back to Stone, and
- the Trump campaign built its final message around the email release. That is collusion.
Third, Mueller has found evidence that Trump was compromised by a hostile foreign power during the election. In his plea deal, Cohen revealed that Trump had repeatedly lied to voters about the then-candidate’s financial ties to Russia. While Trump claimed during the campaign to have no business dealings with Russia, he was negotiating a wildly lucrative business deal not simply with Russian businessmen, but also involving with the Kremlin itself. Trump’s team even reportedly tried to bribe Russian President Vladimir Putin by offering him a $50 million penthouse.
Worse, Russia not only knew that Trump was lying, but when investigators first started looking into this deal, the Kremlin helped Trump cover up what really happened. That made Trump doubly compromised: first, because he was eager to get the financial payout and second because Russia had evidence he was lying to the American people—evidence they could have held over Trump by threatening to reveal at any time.
Since the president’s embarrassing performance at the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin—when he kowtowed to a foreign adversary rather than stand up for American interests—there has been open speculation about what leverage the Kremlin has over him. Now we know at least part of the picture, raising the specter of what other information Putin has, and how he is using it to influence Trump’s policy decisions.
Fourth, we know that Trump has engaged in an increasingly brazen attempt to cover up his actions: installing a political crony to head the Department of Justice by potentially illegal means in an effort to shut down the investigation; using his former campaign chairman and convicted criminal Paul Manafort to find out information about Mueller’s investigation; and even appearing to offer Manafort a pardon if he helps him obstruct the Russia probe. These may be components of an obstruction of justice case, but they also provide strongly circumstantial data points as to how serious Trump himself views the allegations of collusion being levelled against him.
the enmity between the two men was long-standing and bitter. After the Helsinki summit, earlier this year, McCain called Trump’s joint press conference with Vladimir Putin “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American President in memory.” If, after all this acrimony, Trump had said something positive about McCain, it would have rung hollow.
But messing with the flag that flies above the White House was different. The flag represents the United States and the office of the Presidency, not Trump personally. After the death of a prominent U.S. politician, such as a former President or prominent senator, it is standard practice for the sitting President to issue a proclamation ordering the flag to be lowered to half-staff until the burial, which, in this case, will be next Sunday.
Whatever one thinks of McCain’s political views, his record—five and a half years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, thirty-one years in the Senate, and two Presidential bids—surely merited such an honor. As Mark Knoller, of CBS News, noted on Monday morning, Trump failed to order the proclamation. Evidently, there is no limit to his smallness.
The outcry was immediate and broad-based, and, in this instance, Trump backed down.
.. Who persuaded Trump to change course? Was there a rebellion in the West Wing? The initial reports about the reversal didn’t say. But it was clear that the last thing the White House needs right now is another public-relations disaster. Although McCain’s death knocked the saga of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea off the front pages, at least temporarily, the past week was a disaster for the White House, and a reminder that Trump’s pettiness is only exceeded by his deceitfulness. Is there anybody in the entire country who now believes anything he says about the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal that Cohen helped orchestrate?
.. For habitual liars, telling untruths is “partly practice and partly habit,” William Hazlitt once wrote. “It requires an effort in them to speak truth.” Trump seldom makes the exertion.
.. Some of Trump’s defenders are complaining that the Feds, having failed to nail the President on the charge of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election, are now “trying to Al Capone the President”—that is, get him on a technicality. Others in the Trump camp are falling back on the legal argument that a sitting President can’t be indicted, or that Hillary Clinton’s campaign also violated campaign laws. But, apart from Trump himself, virtually nobody seems to be claiming that he didn’t direct the payoffs.
.. Here’s a quick reminder of the rap sheet. Turning a blind eye to money laundering at his New Jersey casinos. Operating a bogus university that bilked middle-income seniors out of their retirement savings. Stiffing his suppliers as a matter of course. Selling condos to Russians and other rich foreigners who may well have been looking to launder hot money. Entering franchising deals with Eastern European oligarchs and other shady characters. For decades, Trump has run roughshod over laws and regulations.
To protect himself from whistle-blowers, financial cops, and plaintiffs, Trump relied on nondisclosure agreements, lax enforcement, and his reputation for uncompromising litigiousness.
As president, Donald Trump has uttered more than 4,000 falsehoods or misleading statements. And the spokespeople and advisers tasked with squaring Trump’s version of reality with actual reality must often contort themselves accordingly.
.. On Sunday, they tried a couple of new tacks: asserting that “facts develop” and saying that the president “misspoke” — while saying something he has said dozens of times.
.. George Stephanopoulos challenged the president’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow on two past, disproven assurances that Trump hadn’t authored the initial, misleading statement about it. (That statement said the meeting was “primarily” about the adoption of Russian children.)
.. Facts might have “developed” from Sekulow’s perspective, but the actual events never changed. Either Trump didn’t tell him the truth about his role in drafting that statement, or Sekulow and Sanders offered assurances that were basically made-up. That “bad information” came from somewhere — either Trump or thin air.
.. John Bolton offered another extremely hard-to-stomach explanation for Trump’s soft stance toward Vladimir Putin on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, saying Trump merely “misspoke”:
.. why not stand there right alongside Putin, with the whole world watching and say, we are not going to stand for any more meddling?
BOLTON: Well, as the president said, he misspoke.
.. Trump has also said that he misspoke at the news conference with Putin — but not at this juncture. He said that when he said “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, he meant to say wouldn’t instead.
As the video clip Wallace played shows, that was hardly the only moment in the joint news conference with Putin in which Trump played down the idea that Russia interfered. Bolton was responding not to Trump saying “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia but to his insistence that “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Trump has never said he misspoke about that.
.. And that really gives lie to this whole thing. Trump has downplayed Putin’s interference so many times over the past 18 months that he would have had to be misspeaking almost constantly. It’s clear what he truly believes or at least wants to convey — even if aides can occasionally reel him back in slightly.
.. each and every one of them also has the side effect of undermining the credibility of the spokespeople who, in neither of these cases, must truly believe the things they are saying.