The information that President Trump has deliberately sought to conceal information on his conversations with Vladimir Putin is a major departure from previous practices. We already knew that President Trump met one-one one with Putin in Helsinki in July, without aides or note-takers present and accompanied only by his interpreter. We also knew that Trump had an earlier, initially undisclosed hour-long conversation with Putin at the 2017 Group of 20 meetings in Hamburg, with only the Russian translator present.
At another meeting between Trump and Putin in Hamburg, only Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was present from the U.S. side. We now know that Trump took possession of the translator’s notes from that meeting, and told the translator not to discuss what had happened with other people in the administration. Here’s why this hurts other administration officials.
Note-takers aren’t writing these for future scholars
Typically, the gist of conversations among leaders and their top advisers is captured in specialized documents that are kept for the record — Memorandums of Conversations (MemCons). Just as journalists love scoops, scholars love to be the first to unearth a high-level MemCon among leaders and their top advisers.
But government officials who create MemCons are not writing them for the historical record; these notes provide real value for policymakers, and ultimately for the president himself. If policymakers don’t know what he said, they can’t help him formulate meaningful policy as much as they otherwise might. MemCons are an important tool for presidents to get what they want.
The paucity of a good record for a one-on-one Trump-Putin meeting would fit a pattern set during the period between the 2016 presidential election and the inauguration, when Trump had meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders with no or few notes taken, as far as we know.
What’s the big deal? For starters, national security aides who are not in the meetings rely on these notes to understand the state of play of their principals’ conversations so they can advise those principals. They need MemCons to follow up on things their boss has said, including promises made to the other side. In some cases, bureaucratic players create different versions of a MemCon to be given to different parts of government as a way to control policy; Henry Kissinger was a master of this game. If you don’t know what’s been said, you are going to have a hard time contributing to the policy.
Last year’s encounter lasted an hour; the conversation would likely have informed U.S. policy making, had there been a clear record. We don’t know how long the Helsinki meeting will last, but once again, Trump’s aides need to know what is discussed.
Detailed note-taking is also really hard
As any scholar can tell you, MemCons vary widely in quality. They typically aren’t verbatim transcripts and can sometimes miss the nuance of what was said. We know this by comparing MemCons to presidential tapes, such as the one from the meeting President John F. Kennedy had with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko about six weeks before Kennedy’s assassination.
During presidential phone calls, multiple staff members sometimes sit in the Situation Room taking notes to ensure as accurate a record as possible. Other in-person meetings have mid-level staff taking notes while the principals talk. MemCons are particularly thin if the president only has a secretary of state or national security adviser present to take notes since the “plus one” is often an important figure in the meeting and does not have time to produce a great record of what was said.
Having no one with the president means there is no formal record. The lack of a good record of these meetings is thus not only making future scholars of this period cringe, it’s making the job of every member of the national security team that much more difficult.
Of course, MemCons aren’t perfect, and policymakers can draw incorrect inferences of what was actually discussed at a meeting. Fred I. Greenstein and Richard H. Immerman recount a meeting that President Dwight Eisenhower had with Kennedy the day before the latter’s inauguration regarding Ike’s advice on what to do about Indochina. Four individuals present took notes, and the notes differ considerably on exactly what Eisenhower advised his successor about U.S. military intervention.
We don’t know what Trump and Putin discussed last year
“It was already hard to piece together what Trump and Putin discussed at the meeting Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended in 2017 on the margins of the G-20, given the different readouts that occurred right after. Now we know that there were multiple occasions in which U.S. officials did not have records allowing them to know exactly what Trump and Putin discussed.”
Think about what that means for someone like National Security Adviser John Bolton. He will have to wonder whether his boss promised anything on sanctions, discussed Syria and Ukraine, or, most worrisome given Trump’s previous statements, discussed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump himself should want notes taken for anything beyond basic chitchat. He may believe just the opposite; after all, if there are no witnesses, no one can prove that he might have said something he should not have. But then again, if Trump or one of his advisers wants to convince a reporter of what he did say, there’s also no record to draw upon.
Of course, the historical record is important, too
Many scholars have used repositories like presidential libraries that have just opened up new documents from 25 to 30 years earlier to create much better understandings of historical events. Others have made successful use of the Freedom of Information Act to illuminate more recent policy debates or major decision moments such as the Iraq War.
Back in 2016, I argued, for example, that a MemCon recounting a discussion Secretary of State Warren Christopher had with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in October 1993 is extremely helpful in understanding Russian attitudes in response to the Clinton administration’s pursuit of NATO enlargement, attitudes that continue to feature in the West’s relations with Russia today.
Although this White House leaks like a sieve, it is shaping up to be a White House short on good records of certain high-level meetings. That’s too bad for historians of the future trying to make sense of this presidency, and particularly the Trump-Putin relationship, but it also hinders the president’s own aides as they go about their work.
James Goldgeier (@JimGoldgeier) is professor of international relations at American University and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.