After their meeting, the two leaders began a 45-minute news conference that would be remembered as one as one of Trump’s most controversial, with the U.S. president casting doubt upon the findings of his own intelligence agencies and telling reporters that Putin had given him an “extremely strong and powerful” denial of claims that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Now, more than 200 days later, it is still not clear what Trump and Putin discussed in Helsinki. And although some details may be coming out, they are far from conclusive.
Notably, one of the key figures involved in Trump’s preparations for his talk with Putin was John Bolton, who had then been the White House national security adviser for just a few months. A new profile of Bolton from The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung, Greg Jaffe, John Hudson and Josh Dawsey gives new details of what Trump may have said in his meeting with Putin.
Or at least, what Bolton may have told colleagues about the meeting.
From the article:
Bolton told senior officials working on Syria policy that Trump, during a no-notes meeting alone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July, had insisted that U.S. troops would stay in Syria until Moscow forced out its Iranian allies — an ambitious declaration that could keep the Americans there for years. With no reason to doubt Bolton’s account, officials at the Pentagon and State Department fine-tuned a strategy that made Iran’s departure a primary objective of the 2,000-strong U.S. presence.
With little sign that Iranian forces are leaving Syria any time soon, this detail might suggest a long time frame for a U.S. presence in Syria. However, Trump never actually approved a strategy tying troop withdrawal to Iran’s departure, several senior administration officials told The Post; in December, he sent a tweet that announced U.S. troops were coming home from Syria, apparently undercutting Bolton’s recounting of the Helsinki meeting.
“Today, it’s still unclear what Trump actually told Putin,” The Post reports.
The lack of clarity about what Trump may have said during his meeting with Putin adds another layer of uncertainty to the Trump administration’s already opaque Syria policy. Bolton’s retelling of this detail may reveal Trump backing out of a privately argued policy — or Bolton using the secrecy surrounding the meeting to push a policy he favored.
Ned Price, a former CIA officer and a spokesman for the National Security Council under the Obama administration, highlighted the story as “reason 1036747489 that one-on-one, no-notes meetings between Trump and Putin are dangerous,” and he suggested that Bolton may have lied about what Trump said in the meeting.
Reason 1036747489 that one-on-one, no-notes meetings between Trump and Putin are dangerous: Trump’s National Security Adviser can apparently lie to his senior counterparts about what was said in an effort to keep US troops in Syria indefinitely. https://t.co/RAIZhYY3l0 pic.twitter.com/9rfcjD3BEw— Ned Price (@nedprice) March 5, 2019
It’s unclear what else might have been discussed by the two world leaders in Helsinki. Trump and Putin said they had discussed not only Syria during their meeting but also terrorism and nuclear disarmament. Some reports suggested they talked specifically about Russian efforts to collaborate with Israel in Syria and issues regarding the Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine.
With little U.S. confirmation of what was discussed, Russia was able to shape the perception of the talks in their immediate aftermath — with Kremlin officials speaking of “agreements” reached during the meeting, without going into specifics. The Russians are likely to have kept detailed notes of the encounter; The Post reported in January that Trump has taken the notes of his interpreters in some conversations with Putin, though it is not clear if he did so after Helsinki.
It’s possible that this could change. A number of committees in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives are now asking the White House and the State Department for any information on Trump’s conversation with Putin. These organizations seek an interview with an interpreter who sat in on their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki last summer.
But some lawmakers have balked at the idea of making an interpreter testify about a private meeting, and there are big legal questions over whether the White House could invoke executive privilege to block public scrutiny of the meeting. If that happens, the Helsinki summit may remain shrouded in mystery for years, if not forever.