Report

Lawmakers Want Classified Documents on Trump’s Meeting with Putin

Top Democrats still worry the president is hiding commitments he gave the Russian leader.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for their meeting in Helsinki on July 16. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for their meeting in Helsinki on July 16. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

Two top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are asking to see all notes and documents relating to U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia last month, including classified cables and notes from Trump’s interpreter, citing concerns the president may be hiding certain commitments he gave Putin.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) made the request in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying their questions on the private two-hour meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki had so far gone unanswered.

“We make this request only as a direct result of the extraordinary and, to our knowledge, unprecedented circumstances of President Trump’s … one-on-one meeting with a leader identified as a threat to the United States by President Trump’s own National Security Strategy,” they wrote.

“In view of the … inability of senior officials to provide a clear and complete description of any commitments that President Trump may have made during this two-hour conversation, we respectfully request that you provide the Senate Foreign Relations Committee members relevant materials.”

The senators said in the letter that Russia had taken advantage of the White House’s silence on the meeting to circulate its own version of commitments Trump may have made, including on U.S. policy in Syria and Ukraine.

The letter included some sharp language, but the lawmakers requested—rather than compelled—the White House to hand over the documents.

The State Department did not immediately respond to questions on whether it would honor the senators’ requests.

In the immediate wake of the July summit, some politicians explored the option of forcing Trump’s State Department interpreter—the only other American in the room during the meeting—to testify before Congress.

Former senior diplomats pushed back, saying it would set a bad precedent regarding the role played by interpreters and undermine the sanctity of private presidential conversations. The drive to get Trump’s interpreter to testify ultimately failed.

“There’s a certain presumption that discussions that are held on a confidential basis will be protected by both sides,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former career diplomat and U.S. ambassador to Russia. “Otherwise, countries are very reluctant to engage in the kind of give and take you need to solve problems.”

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remain frustrated at how little they’ve learned about the Trump-Putin meeting.

“To date, we have received no real readout—even in a classified setting—of this meeting,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a congressional hearing Tuesday.

A. Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia,  testified at the same hearing, emphasizing that the Trump administration was cracking down on Russia for its interference in U.S. elections and its attempts to sow divisions in the United States and European countries. As evidence, he cited the administration’s decision to boost U.S. defense spending in Europe and impose major sanctions on Russia.

Mitchell warned against partisan spats in the United States that would only serve Putin’s agenda.

“Putin wants to break apart the American republic, not by influencing an election or two, but by systematically inflaming the fault lines within our society,” he said. “The most dangerous thing in the world we could do is to politicize the challenge, which in itself would be a gift to Putin.”

But when pressed on whether he was fully briefed on last month’s summit, Mitchell demurred. “I have been briefed on the appropriate information I need to carry out my job with relation to Russia,” he said.

Alina Polyakova, a Russia scholar at the Brookings Institution, said there was still a huge “information hole” about what was said at the Helsinki summit.

“I do see it as in the purview of Congress to ask the administration to be much more clear about what took place,” she said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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