House Democrats announced an expanded investigation Monday into President Donald Trump’s personal communications with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, requesting documents and interviews from people who might have information about those encounters.
The president has reportedly seized notes from at least one of his face-to-face meetings with Putin — notes Democrats believe may have been destroyed — and instructed an interpreter not to share details of the two men's conversation with other senior aides.
There are no records in the White House of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with Putin on at least five different occasions, The Washington Post reported in January, an extraordinary gap in presidential record-keeping.
House Chairmen Adam Schiff (Intelligence), Elijah Cummings (Oversight and Reform), and Eliot Engel (Foreign Affairs) said the disappearance of records “[raises] profound national security, counterintelligence, and foreign policy concerns,” noting that Trump is a president whom Russian intelligence tried to install through a sweeping internet influence campaign in the 2016 election and through other measures.
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The White House never responded to a letter from the chairmen in February that sought answers about Trump’s communications with Putin and the gap in presidential records, the chairmen wrote in their new letter.
If Trump seized and destroyed notes from his conversations, that would be a violation of the Presidential Records Act.
“These allegations present serious concerns that materials pertaining to specific communications may have been manipulated or withheld from the official record in direct contravention of federal laws, which expressly require that Presidents and other administration officials preserve such materials,” Schiff, Cummings, and Engel wrote.
Trump reportedly seized the notes from his first meeting as president with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg, where he was joined by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The interpreter at that meeting has told other officials that Putin denied any involvement in election interference in 2016 and that Trump told him, “I believe you.”
The Democratic House chairmen on Monday said that they are probing what effects Trump’s conversations with Putin have had in influencing U.S. foreign policy.
For months, House Democrats have expressed interest in holding closed-door, transcribed interviews with Trump’s interpreters from the State Department and White House and compelling document disclosure from key witnesses and advisers. Monday marks the first step toward realizing those ambitions.
The chairmen gave the White House and State Department a March 15 deadline to comply with their requests.
Democrats on the committees with jurisdiction over the matter are particularly interested in finding out what Trump discussed with Putin at their bilateral meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in the summer of 2018, at which the president sided with Putin over his own intelligence community over Russian election interference in 2016.
Multiple Republican senators at the time panned the joint press conference as a disgrace but made no moves to figure out why Trump may have said what he said.
Congress has a “constitutional duty” to conduct oversight over the administration, the chairmen wrote in their letter Monday, and are seeking to ensure that Trump's foreign policy decisions are rooted “in the national interest.”