We Still Don’t Know

It is almost a week, and we have no reliable information about the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Trump and Putin spent two and a half hours together in Helsinki with no note-takers, no expert advice, only their interpreters. We have no record of what happened during those two and a half hours, no record of what either man said or may have promised.

The standard practice to have note-takers in such a meeting is because the president is not representing himself, but rather the country. It’s important to have notes because memories of a meeting may be inaccurate or the other party may dispute them.

Engagement in serious discussion precludes note-taking or even forming a coherent memory of all the things said and done. A competent interlocutor pays attention to what the other party is saying and thinks about what s/he will say, informed by recall of materials studied before the meeting.

Interpreting requires its own kind of concentration. Hearing what is said, finding the right words to express it in another language, all in real time, requires all one’s mental capacity. The notes that interpreters take are fragments of what is said and difficult phrases, often in a private shorthand. Although Thomas Pickering says that US interpreters make a “clear, verbatim record” of their meetings.

A note-taker must be able to understand the conversation and its nuances and concentrate on getting that on paper.

Normally, a president reports to the people he represents what was discussed at the meeting. Sometimes a full transcript is made available, but there may be material that is classified. That material would be made available to the appropriate people in the government agencies.

Before such a meeting, the agencies would prepare talking points. They would list areas of sensitivity to allies, Russian approaches that should be pushed back on, and background information, including intelligence and evaluation of Putin’s domestic situation.

Of course, none of that happened, because, as Trump has told us, he is the only one who matters. For him, the meeting was about his personal relationship with Putin. Or he wanted no witnesses because what he was saying and doing was counter to his commitment as president. We don’t know, of course, because we have no information about that meeting except what Russia claims and information leaking and dribbling out from the Trump administration.

In response to a Trump request for prosecutors to question the Russians indicted in the special counsel probe, Putin suggested that former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, businessman Bill Browder, and others be turned over for questioning in Russia. Trump initially found this “interesting.” He should have instantly found it unacceptable (or a troll), but his administration dithered for a couple of days.

Trump and Putin may have discussed the possibility of a referendum in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where Russia has been carrying on a war that it tries to disguise as being internal. Three days for the administration to knock this one down. Trump should have turned it down instantly.

The Russian Defense Ministry has declared it is looking forward to implementing the agreements reached in international security. The administration has said nothing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that Trump has talked to him about the discussions with Putin. He mentioned “counterterrorism [and] an effort to begin conversations around arms control to prevent the spread of nuclear proliferation.”

Trump invited Putin to visit the White House this fall, although that seems to have come after the discussion on July 16. Also after the meeting, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a phonecall. The readout came from Russia, not the US.

Normally, the notetaker would write up the notes, the president would go over them, the interpreter might help, and the notes or appropriate parts of them would be distributed to the agencies that need to take action. A press conference would make public the agreements and disagreements.

If the agencies aren’t provided with the relevant information from the meeting, they can’t take action. So perhaps this avoids some of the harm from ignorant promises Trump may have made. Or perhaps Trump never intended to keep any promises, which seems to be a practice of his.

In a long Twitter thread, New York Times reporter Lincoln Pigman reports a speech by Anatoly Antonov, the Russian Ambassador to the US, in which he describes the discussions.

The meeting did not necessarily go well for Putin, although he looked much more pleased than Trump did as they came out of their meeting (top photo). His outburst against Bill Browder during the press conference was uncharacteristic. That seems to indicate that the Magnitsky sanctions are a particular irritation for him, as has been noted before.

Also last week, the administration approved $200 million to Ukraine for material needed in the war in the Donbas. It seems unlikely that this was a point of agreement between Trump and Putin. Is this a message? Would it be more effective if the agreement or disagreement were explained?

And we don’t know what happened in Trump’s private meeting with Kim Jong Un, either.

Update: Trump may have made an agreement with Putin on allowing Syrian refugees back in Syria. General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, hasn’t heard from Trump on that, and he is concerned about dangers to refugees when they return. He would like to see some confidence-building measures from Russia and the Assad regime.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.

One comment

  1. The Blog Fodder · July 23, 2018

    Russia gets to define what was ‘decided on’ and Trump dare not deny it. Isn’t it fun?


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