The report comes following a whistleblower’s claims the White House routinely hid Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders.
In 2017, President Donald Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak he believed Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential to be unimportant, according to a report from the Washington Post — and access to the memo describing the meeting was restricted to very few people, out of fear that the president’s comments would be made public.
Trump has repeatedly downplayed fears about Russian election interference in public. But the Post’s report, from Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey, and Ellen Nakashima, is the latest allegation that the White House has treated potentially embarrassing records about Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders with a high level of official secrecy.
That same concern is contained in a whistleblower’s report alleging the White House used a secure electronic system to classify a conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian president. That report is at the center of House Democrats’ newly launched impeachment inquiry. And it was compounded Friday night by CNN and New York Times reports that access to notes from conversations with Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was similarly restricted.
It is unclear whether the memo prepared following the Russia meeting was placed in the same secure system as the Ukrainian transcript was. Three former officials reportedly said the memo was accessible only to officials with incredibly high security clearances, and that because of that, it was available only to a very, very small number of people.
These latest reports come as the president is immersed in a growing scandal about his willingness to have foreign governments — in the latest case, Ukraine — work to his benefit during an election cycle. And they also put more scrutiny both on Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders and the White House’s attempts to keep those conversations from becoming public.
What Trump reportedly said at the meeting with Russian officials
Trump reportedly made the comments on interference during the same May 2017 meeting at which he shared classified US intelligence on ISIS with Russia, causing his critics to fear both that the president could not be trusted with classified information and that he may have inadvertently revealed US intelligence sources and methods. He also said firing FBI director James Comey had relieved “pressure” from the Russia investigation.
Beyond dismissing Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections, officials the Post spoke with said Trump also appeared to give Russia permission to meddle in the elections of other countries as well. It’s not clear exactly what he said to give this impression.
Trump is said to have blamed US-Russia tensions on journalists, saying, “I could have a great relationship with you guys, but you know, our press.”
In fact, the officials said Trump and top administration officials have often used the press to defend Russia’s actions, arguing that Voice of America — a government-funded independent news agency that broadcasts and publishes around the world — is of a kind with Russia’s digital propaganda push ahead of 2016.
Voice of America’s critics have long argued it is US propaganda, and Russia itself designated it a foreign agent, but US presidents have supported it. And unlike Russia, it has not taken out Facebook ads aimed at dividing countries on racial lines or sponsored events meant to sow chaos and division.
The Post’s report comes as other US officials and outside experts are emphasizing the risk election meddling poses to American democracy. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire issued a similar warning during a testimony to Congress this week, calling protecting elections his “most fundamental priority.”
Officials involved in Mueller’s Russia investigation — including the special counsel himself — have warned that Russia will continue to try to influence elections during the 2020 cycle; this week, G. Zachary Terwilliger, a US attorney who investigated election interference during the 2018 midterms, said of Russian interference in 2020, “They’re going to do it. In an open setting like this there’s not a lot I can get into, but I think it wouldn’t be irresponsible for me to say they’re definitely going to try.”
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