Trump’s latest call with Putin raises more questions than it answers

When news arrived early Sunday that President Donald Trump had spoken to his Russian counterpart, it didn’t come from the White House.

Instead, word came from Moscow, where the Kremlin issued a brief statement saying Vladimir Putin had initiated a call to thank Trump for information provided by the United States that helped foil a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg.

It would be more than 24 hours before the White House officially confirmed the conversation in its own statement. The 63-word American description of the call largely echoed the Russian version, with the addition that the men discussed arms control.

“The Presidents also discussed the state of relations between the United States and Russia,” the statement read.

Neither side provided additional details about the information the US had provided.

It’s not the first time a foreign government, including the Kremlin, has gotten a jump on announcing a call with Trump. In his conversations with Putin, Trump has previously insisted upon unusual secrecy that obscured the content of their discussions even from those inside the administration — including asking for his translator’s notes back after a one-on-one meeting.

Congressional investigators have tried without success to obtain more information about Trump’s meeting with Putin, including going to court for records from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In December, a court ruled that the case could move forward, denying the Trump administration’s request to dismiss it.

This most recent call with Putin comes amid fresh scrutiny into Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders and the White House’s handling of those conversations, including recent attempts to limit the number of people who can listen in.

And it occurred as Putin’s influence on Trump — and particularly his views toward Ukraine — are being closely examined.

Trump, who is beginning the second week of his holiday vacation in Florida, took the phone call with Putin as he prepared to play a round of golf at his club in West Palm Beach. On Sunday he played with former US congressman Trey Gowdy and the professional golfer Gene Sauers.

It was Trump’s first publicly disclosed conversation with Putin since late July, when he offered to assist in combating Siberian wildfires. Later, sources said the men also discussed the need for a new American ambassador in Moscow.

On Sunday, Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien appeared on a morning talk show around the time the call with Putin was taking place, though O’Brien didn’t discuss the conversation. Other top national security officials, including Pompeo, were in Washington overseeing airstrikes on an Iranian militia group in Iraq. Pompeo later flew to Florida to brief the President on the strikes before returning north.

It isn’t known which officials listened to Trump’s phone call with Putin. But administration aides have described a general tightening of call participants following the fallout from Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine’s President, which ultimately escalated into a congressional inquiry and Trump’s impeachment.

Transcripts of Trump’s calls with world leaders are also disseminated to a far smaller group of people inside the White House, those administration sources have said, continuing an effort to limit the number of people with insight and information about the conversations.

“Nobody is allowed on the calls,” a White House official said, describing the new effort to limit those with access to the calls to only the President’s senior-most aides, barring some senior and mid-level career staff from listening in. “The barn door officially closed after the horse escaped.”

Officials familiar with the matter say delays in official readouts of Trump’s phone calls are usually due to a lengthy clearance process that includes officials at the National Security Council and in the White House. Trump’s call occurred on a Sunday in the middle of a quiet holiday week, which could have added to the time it took for the required officials to sign off.

Even in previous administrations, the clearance process for writing and releasing a statement from the White House following a presidential phone call has sometimes led foreign governments to release their version first.

In the past, officials have described Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders sometimes veering off into unguarded or undiplomatic territory. Earlier in his administration, some of those details leaked, making for embarrassing headlines and questions about the privacy of Trump’s conversations.

That included an instance of Trump congratulating Putin on an election win despite advice from his aides that he not extend his congratulations because the election wasn’t viewed as legitimate.

The smaller group of officials with access to the calls is meant to prevent further leaks, according to administration sources. But the effect has also led to information from the calls being obscured even to those inside the administration.

The White House has made efforts in the past to limit access to calls Trump has had with Putin.

Even before the Ukraine scandal and ensuing impeachment, administration officials took steps to limit access to Trump’s phone conversations with Putin, along with certain other foreign leaders like the Saudi crown prince, according to administration officials.

Trump’s past conversations with Putin have been similarly shrouded in atypical secrecy. After their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of a summit in Germany, Trump asked to keep his translator’s notes. They spoke at a dinner of foreign leaders without any American witnesses, relying on Putin’s translator. During talks in Helsinki, they spoke without any other officials present.

The insistence on keeping his conversations with Putin so closely held caught the interest of investigators, including Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating whether Trump or his campaign associates worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

The impeachment inquiry centered on Trump’s approach to Ukraine reignited the questions about his relationship to Putin. The Washington Post reported that former Trump administration officials feared Putin had planted a conspiracy that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election.

One of the officials told the Post that Trump gave the theory credibility because “Putin told me.”

Administration officials spent a good deal of time early in Trump’s administration trying to dissuade him of the Ukraine election meddling theory, according to testimony from former NSC official Fiona Hill.

Trump has long maintained that improving relations between Washington and Moscow is essential, even as he insists that new sanctions on Russia make him tougher on the country than previous presidents. He warned Russia last week against supporting a massacre of civilians in Syria, where the Russian-backed regime has bombarded Idlib province, causing a humanitarian crisis.

But Trump has also appeared to downplay or deny intelligence showing Russia sought to interfere on his behalf in the 2016 contest, saying he takes Putin at his word that he did not meddle.

Trump faces another pending choice that could lead to more questions about his ties to Putin. He’s been invited to Moscow by Putin to attend a Victory Day parade in May that marks the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over the Nazis.

The White House hasn’t said whether he’ll make the trip.