Trump’s secretive conversations with Putin
President Trump’s relationship with Russia came under fresh scrutiny this week after a pair of media reports raised new questions about the Kremlin’s influence on the White House. The New York Times reported that FBI agents were so alarmed by the president’s behavior after firing FBI Director James Comey in 2016 that they opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was knowingly or unwittingly working in behalf of the Russian government. Law enforcement officials were especially concerned by comments Trump made on NBC News and to Russian officials visiting the White House in which he stated that he fired Comey over the FBI investigation into Russian election interference. In another blow to the White House, The Washington Post reported the president “has gone to extraordinary lengths” since he was elected to hide the details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin from government officials. U.S. officials told the Post there is no detailed record of any of the five face-to-face meetings Trump has had with Putin, even in classified government files. After a 2017 meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, Trump even took away his interpreter’s notes, telling her not to share the details of what was said with other officials.
Trump called questions about whether he worked in behalf of Russia “insulting,” telling reporters, “I never worked for Russia. It’s a whole big fat hoax. It’s just a hoax.” House Democrats vowed to hold hearings to push for more information about Trump’s dealings with Putin. “Every time Trump meets with Putin, the country is told nothing,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “The Foreign Affairs Committee will seek to get to the bottom of it.”
What the editorials said
President Trump’s aggressive efforts to conceal his chats with Putin are “downright alarming,” said The Boston Globe. This is a president who had already triggered an unprecedented FBI investigation into whether he’d been compromised by Russia. Since then, the president’s personal obsequiousness toward Putin has done nothing to allay suspicions. Congress should subpoena Trump’s translators for their testimony and notes. The American people have an “urgent right” to know what Trump is telling Putin.
The only thing alarming here is the FBI’s actions, said The Wall Street Journal. Senior FBI officials took it upon themselves to investigate Trump after he fired their incompetent boss, which was entirely within the president’s constitutional authority. The FBI’s attempt to portray a sitting president as a foreign asset “ought to be shocking—not least to civil libertarians and Democrats who profess to be horrified by the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover.”
What the columnists said
“The FBI had no choice,” said Tom Nichols in USA Today. In 2016, the bureau was investigating several Trump associates for their secretive ties to Russia in the aftermath of a massive Kremlin campaign to influence the election in Trump’s favor. Then Trump fired the FBI director and bragged to the Russian ambassador that he’d taken “the pressure off.” Add this to the blackmail possibilities of Trump’s 30-year history of business dealings with Russia and “only the most stupid or craven law enforcement agency would decline to investigate.” Trump “has something to hide.”
Spare me the conspiracy theories about Trump being a “Russian spy,” said Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. The simplest explanation for the president’s cagey behavior is that he “cannot trust those around him.” Details of private conversations with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte were all leaked to the press, generating embarrassing headlines. “Every president has the right to hold confidential conversations.”
The evidence for obstruction of justice “is very strong,” said Renato Mariotti in Politico.com, and there’s also mounting evidence of collusion. What really matters “is whether Trump committed ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ worthy of impeachment.” If special counsel Robert Mueller can show that President Trump obstructed justice because he was compromised by the Kremlin, that would arguably meet the standard for impeachment. But it’s the American people, through their elected representatives in Congress, who will ultimately have to decide.
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from Newscom (2), Getty ■