Why does the White House cede control of the narrative to the Russians?
In December 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with President Donald Trump at least twice by phone, ostensibly about economic and counterintelligence issues. Americans first learned about both calls from the Kremlin. When then–CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with Russian intelligence officials subjected to sanctions in January 2018 at Langley, Americans learned about it first from the Russian Embassy—via Twitter.
A couple of months later, when Trump congratulated Putin on an election victory widely deemed a sham, the Kremlin disclosed the conversation first. And in July and November 2018, in Finland and then Argentina, Trump and Putin reportedly met with no U.S. aides or interpreters present. A leaked Russian document said they discussed arms control at the private meeting in Finland, forcing the White House to respond. “There were no commitments to undertake any action,” a spokesman said at the time.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia did not occur in 2016, according to a memo written by Attorney General William Barr late last month. But fundamental questions remain: Why do so many of Trump’s positions bewilderingly align with Putin’s, including chastising U.S. spies, dismissing NATO as “obsolete,” and questioning the value of the European Union? What explains Trump’s affinity for Putin, and the extensive secrecy that has shrouded their interactions since 2017? Why has the White House made it so easy for the Kremlin to shape the narrative around Trump and Putin’s encounters, often to Moscow’s advantage?
Mueller’s final report will detail Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election and might provide some answers. But the curiosity over the two leaders’ relationship stems largely from Democratic allegations that Trump, who has reportedly gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal his private conversations with Putin, may be compromised—claims that have been exacerbated by the Kremlin’s consistent ability to characterize the narrative of their interactions.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Trump has repeatedly characterized the Mueller investigation as a witch hunt.
House Democrats, meanwhile, still want documents from the White House related to Trump’s communications with Putin, despite the White House counsel rebuffing the Democrats’ request last month. “We will be consulting on appropriate next steps,” the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees said in a joint statement. The House Intelligence Committee held a hearing two weeks ago examining the Kremlin’s use of financial leverage to influence foreign policy, and how, in Chairman Adam Schiff’s words, “this notion of compromise, or Kompromat in Russian … is at the heart of Russia’s playbook to sow discord in democratic institutions.”
It would have once been unthinkable to accuse a sitting president of putting the interests of a hostile foreign power above those of the United States. But Trump’s continual praise of Putin on the campaign trail, his pursuit of a multimillion-dollar real-estate deal in Moscow throughout the election—while Russia was waging a massive hacking and disinformation campaign to undermine his opponent, Hillary Clinton—and the secrecy that still surrounds his conversations with Putin gave many, including the FBI, pause.“All this would be unusual enough for any president,” The Atlantic’s David Frum notedin January. “It is more than suspicious for a president being formally investigated by the FBI as a possible Russian-intelligence asset.” The FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president to determine whether he was acting as a Russian agent after he fired former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. That investigation was then handed off to Mueller.
Mueller’s probe did not establish that a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia had occurred, according to Barr’s summary of his final report. However, he did not make a decision on whether Trump obstructed justice, punting that determination to Barr instead. Nevertheless, Putin gloated over Mueller’s findings earlier this month, telling a forum in St. Petersburg that “it was clear to us from the start that it would end like this. A mountain gave birth to a mouse.”
“We said from the start that this infamous commission of Mr. Mueller’s would not find anything because nobody knows this better than us,” he added. “Russia did not meddle in any elections in the United States. There was no collusion, as Mr. Mueller said, between Trump and Russia.”
To be sure, U.S.-Russian relations have not substantially improved in the two and a half years since Putin made his first official phone call to Trump, during which the leaders lamented the “unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations” between the two countries, according to a Kremlin statement. Congress forced the Trump administration to impose new sanctions on Kremlin-linked companies and oligarchs in 2017 in response to Russia’s election interference, and the U.S. expelled 61 Russian intelligence officers last year in response to Russia’s alleged poisoning of a former spy on British soil. (Trump was apparently furious, however, at the number of diplomats ordered to leave. “There were curse words, a lot of curse words,” an official told The Washington Post.)
American presidents, moreover, have tried in the past to repair relations with Russia. But none have praised and deferred to Putin as Trump has. And the Kremlin appears to have taken notice. An Atlantic analysis of Russian state media shows that Moscow has remained optimistic about the relationship despite the setbacks, focusing on the leaders’ personal chemistry and encouraging people to read into their body language while consistently remaining one step ahead of the White House in disclosing their interactions. That has been especially easy for Russia given how little is known about what Trump and Putin have discussed during their private meetings and during informal conversations at summits in Germany, Vietnam, Finland, and Argentina over the past two years.
A damaging leak about an Oval Office meeting between Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak may be somewhat to blame for the extensive secrecy—The Post reported in May 2017 that Trump had revealed classified information providedby the Israelis during that meeting. Former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster called the story “false,” but Putin still tried to insert himself into the cleanup: “If the U.S. administration considers it possible, we are ready to submit a transcript of Lavrov’s talk with Trump to the U.S. Senate and Congress,” Putin said shortly after the news broke, joking about how Lavrov had failed to share the “secrets” with him.
Trump took the extraordinary step of confiscating his interpreter’s notes after his first private meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017, according to the Post, and demanded that the interpreter refrain from discussing the meeting with members of his own administration. (The White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters earlier this month that Trump was concerned about leaks when he confiscated the notes.) Then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after that meeting that Trump and Putin had discussed Russia’s election interference in 2016. But he wouldn’t say whether Trump accepted Putin’s denial of any such interference at face value—providing Russia with another golden opportunity to shape the narrative.
Trump “accepts the things that Mr. Putin has said,” Lavrov told reporters after the conversation. He echoed Putin’s claim that it “seemed” as though Trump took Putin’s denials into account “and agreed” with them. White House officials didn’t confirm or deny whether Trump had indeed taken Putin’s side, but Trump said a few months later that he believes Putin “means it” when he says Russia didn’t interfere in the election. “I think he is very insulted by it,” Trump said.
Jeffrey Edmonds, who served as the director for Russia on the National Security Council from 2014 to 2017, says that it would not be unusual if Trump were just trying to keep his conversations with Putin within a tight-knit circle of senior White House officials. “Presidents’ conversations with each other are necessarily kept kind of secret so they can work things out in a way that the public is not scrutinizing every word they said,” Edmonds says. He notes that under President Barack Obama, for example, the State Department would frequently ask for transcripts of his conversations with Putin and other foreign leaders but would “rarely” get them. When Obama met Putin in person, though, his national security adviser would accompany him, Edmonds says. “So I think the biggest difference here is in Trump’s wanting to keep his conversations with Putin from his senior advisers,” he adds. “His actively trying to keep them out of the loop is suspect, especially given the context.”
Trump and Putin also had an hour-long, unscheduled conversation over dinner in Hamburg, Germany in July 2017—a rendezvous the world found out aboutfrom the president of a New York–based think tank, Ian Bremmer, whose account forced the White House to disclose the chat. Trump lashed out at the media for reporting on it, and later told The New York Times in passing that the two discussed “adoptions”—a.k.a. sanctions policy.
Russian news outlets accused U.S. journalists of overreacting. “Even a mentioning of Russia is explosive in Washington,” the Russian state-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported at the time, downplaying the dinner conversation as an informal chat “over dessert.” The pro-government Russian network NTV highlighted that MSNBC had aired a clip of Trump pointing at the Russian leader and pumping his fist. The television report said that U.S. media had interpreted the gesture as meaning, “You-me-together.“
Later in 2017, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that while Trump and Putin could “bump into each other” at the summit, “a scheduled, formal meeting” was not on the calendar. In a familiar pattern, the Russian state news outlet TASS tried to own the narrative, however, by reporting that the two leaders “managed to speak before the photo ceremony” and that “Trump put his hand on Putin’s shoulder in a friendly manner.” Russian media also emphasized the fact that Trump stood on Putin’s right side when the photo was taken, indicating that Trump had positioned himself as Putin’s right-hand man.
Russian propagandists often encourage people to read more into gestures and emotions than substance—a remnant of the Soviet era, in which Kremlin bureaucrats paid intense attention to small signs that indicated loyalty or, alternatively, whether someone had fallen out of favor with government leaders. The gestures were traditionally in the context of who congratulates whom, and who praises which bureaucrat in what way—which might have been one reason Trump’s advisers recommended that he not congratulate Putin in March 2018 on his election victory.
do not congratulate, Trump’s advisers wrote on his briefing notes. Sure enough, a Russia Today headline blared: “Trump congratulates Putin on his victory in the presidential election.” The White House retorted that it is a “fireable offense and likely illegal” to leak Trump’s briefing papers to the press, but did not deny that he’d been warned not to congratulate Putin.
The Russian diplomat and Putin aide Yuri Ushakov later told journalists that during that call, Trump had actually invited Putin to the White House. (A Putin spokesman denied Ushakov’s account). Lavrov followed up, telling reporters that Trump “returned” to the topic of Putin’s visit “a couple of times” as they spoke, and even told Putin that he would visit Moscow in return. The disclosures left Trump’s aides scrambling to explain why they hadn’t included those details in their own readout of the call.
The Helsinki summit in July 2018, then—a two-hour, one-on-one meeting followed by a norm-shattering joint press conference—must have exceeded the Kremlin’s wildest dreams. Senior administration officials still appear to be largely in the dark about what Trump and Putin discussed in the closed-door encounter. “I’m not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said when asked about the summit last summer. (He told lawmakers earlier this year that he wanted to discuss the issue in a closed session of Congress.)
The leaders’ joint press conference fueled the loudest calls for a complete account of what they had discussed. Standing before reporters, Trump sided with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment, stating “I don’t see why it would be” Russia that interfered in the 2016 election. His remarks came three days after Mueller issued a new indictment laying out in extraordinary detail how Russia’s military intelligence agency hacked Democratic organizations and timed the release of the stolen material to have the maximum impact on the election. “This is a democracy,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the time. “If our president makes agreements with one of our leading—if not the leading—adversary, his Cabinet has to know about it, and so do the American people.”
Asked whether he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, Putin replied: “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
A scene depicted by one of the Kremlin pool reporters, Andrei Kolesnikov, illustrated the Russians’ perception that U.S. officials were at a severe disadvantage in Finland. “Finns were playing on our side,” Kolesnikov wrote in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper. “Americans did not feel themselves to be the masters of that place. When a Finnish official asked the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to move to the door, Mr. Pompeo looked at him in frustration, with quickly growing hostility,” Kolesnikov wrote. “But that person insisted, and Pompeo finally obeyed.”
Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, told The Atlantic that Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, was “ruling the press conference as if it were Putin’s event.” Kolesnikov told The Atlantic: “Dmitry Peskov was bringing the most powerful artillery to the battle”—and Moscow celebrated its triumph. A veteran nationalist politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, known as “Russia’s Trump,” at the time called the summit “a great joy”—but said that the translators should have been “executed … Otherwise how can you exclude the possibility of a leak?” he asked.
As confusion and outrage set in, the Russians announced that the pair had reached “important agreements”—fueling speculation that Trump was somehow compromised. “I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career,” GOP Representative Will Hurd, a former CIA official, said after the press conference. “I never would have thought that the US President would” be one of them.
Administration officials have still not been able to get a reliable readout of the Helsinki meeting. And they might have a new incident to worry about: Months after the Helsinki summit, at the G20 summit in Argentina, Trump again met with Putin for about 15 minutes without any U.S. translators or officials present. The White House acknowledged that the meeting occurred, but wouldn’t provide details about their conversation.
Steve Hall, the former head of Russian operations for the CIA in Moscow, says the one-on-one meetings put Putin, a former KGB spy, in a unique position to influence Trump. “There are no Americans in the room to act as a break if Trump is being pushed in the wrong direction,” Hall says. “Putin is not only former KGB, but he’s also spent scores of years dealing with foreign leaders and knows how to manipulate them.”