Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst and served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013.
When I took notes during President Barack Obama’s meetings or worked on lists of proposed participants for meetings with foreign leaders, I knew that one of the main objectives was the advancement of U.S. national security. Every step possible was taken to mitigate the risks associated with meeting foreign leaders, especially a hostile one such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Failure to take those steps can put the other leader in the driver’s seat and raises the potential for both foreign manipulation of the president and damage to national security.
President Trump’s failure to engage in the most basic counterintelligence hygiene during meetings with Putin, as reported in The Post on Sunday, is alarming. Trump’s shortfalls include having neither a note taker nor administration officials present when meeting with Putin; not debriefing U.S. officials on what he and the Russian leader discussed; and, on at least one occasion, taking possession of notes that had been made by Trump’s own interpreter.
Deciding who’s in the room during a bilateral meeting may seem like a mere logistical detail, but it is an essential way to diminish counterintelligence risks. Including advisers in meetings allows the president to benefit from readily available expertise. But it also frees the president to engage actively in the meeting while a member of his team takes detailed notes, not only recording what has been said and agreed upon but also describing the foreign leader’s demeanor. Without at a note taker for the administration present and focused on the discussion, no record can be established by the United States to corroborate what did or did not occur.
The Post’s article stirred interest in Marina Gross, a State Department interpreter who was present during Trump’s two-hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July, about which little is publicly known. The article reported that Trump had asked an interpreter to destroy his notes from an earlier meeting with Putin, and observers wondered what had become of Gross’s notes. But an interpreter wouldn’t take notes of the sort that a White House adviser would.
Typically, during a bilateral meeting with Putin, a U.S. interpreter translates the president’s English into Russian and, while Putin speaks, tries to catch any erroneous translations by Putin’s own interpreter. Interpreters rely on their personal lexicon to transcribe letters or words or symbols that help their translation, but they are not there to take meeting notes and provide a detailed record.
Trump’s failure to bring a note taker to the Helsinki meeting means that Putin can characterize it however he likes in conversations with other foreign leaders and Kremlin policymakers, and the United States has no way to authoritatively contradict his account — other than with the president’s recollection. Trump’s record of dissembling and rewriting history does not make him a reliable source.
When presidents do choose to meet one-on-one with a foreign leader, they often take an important second step, “reading out” other members of their team — huddling with them immediately after the meeting and relaying what was said while the memory is fresh. Readouts are conducted even when staff has been present, so that they and the president can compare their respective accounts to ensure that U.S. policy planning has the most complete information.
Failure to do a meeting readout hampers U.S. strategy and undermines the policy process. It also can create problems for future presidents and policymakers, who, without knowing what happened, would be less able to build on progress or to correct any missteps. No detailed records exist for Trump’s five meetings with Putin, The Post reported.
Before a president meets with foreign leaders, the U.S. intelligence community often provides him with a profile of whomever he is meeting. The intelligence analysis regarding Putin would likely describe his objectives — including the way he had tried to undermine the United States’ credibility and to sow divisions and confusion domestically — and the tactics the Russian president could be expected to use during the meeting. Trump went into each meeting with Putin knowing the counterintelligence risks and how to try to mitigate them. There is apparently no record indicating whether Trump employed any of that knowledge.
Trump has invited Putin to meet in Washington this year. Why the president has disregarded basic counterintelligence rules in the past is unknown, but it is essential for U.S. national security that he follow those rules next time.