U.S. President Donald Trump denied on Saturday a report in The Washington Post that he had taken extensive steps to conceal from other high-ranking officials his conversations with President Vladimir Putin of Russia over the past two years.
The Post published an exclusive report, quoting current and former U.S. officials, about Trump’s concealment efforts, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials.
On a separate note, the U.S. president did not directly answer a separate question about when whether he currently is or has ever worked for Russia after a New York Times report said law enforcement officials, concerned about his behaviour after he fired FBI Director James Comey in 2017, had begun investigating that possibility.
The Times story sparked immediate reaction.
The Republican head of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee said Sunday he plans to ask the FBI about the report, suggesting the agency may have gone too far.
“I am going to ask the FBI director - was there a counterintelligence investigation opened up regarding the president as being a potential agent of the Russians? I find it astonishing,” Senator Lindsey Graham said on the Fox News Sunday program.
“If this really did happen, Congress needs to know about it,” he added. “How could the FBI do that? What kinds of checks and balances are there?”
The Post reported on Saturday that Trump took his interpreter’s notes after a meeting with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg that was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. U.S. officials learned of Trump’s actions when a White House adviser and a senior State Department official sought information from the interpreter beyond a readout shared by Tillerson.
The constraints that Trump imposed are part of a broader pattern by the president of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States’ main adversaries.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his panel would hold hearings on “the mysteries swirling around Trump’s bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies, and how those dark dealings affect our national security.”
Trump responded to The Times story Saturday during a telephone interview broadcast on Fox News Channel after host Jeanine Pirro, a personal friend, asked the Russia question.
“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump said. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written, and if you read the article you’ll see that they found absolutely nothing.”
Trump never answered Pirro directly, but went on to assert that no president has taken a harder stance against Russia than he has.
“If you ask the folks in Russia, I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other ... probably any other president, period, but certainly the last three or four presidents.”
Trump’s claim was disputed by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said almost all the sanctions on Russia arose not in the White House but in Congress, due to concerns by members of both parties about Moscow’s actions. Warner accused the White House of being very slow to put in place the penalties.
The Times reported that FBI agents and some top officials became suspicious of Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign but didn’t open an investigation at that time because they weren’t sure how to approach such a sensitive probe.
Trump’s behaviour in the days around Comey’s May 2017 firing helped trigger the counterintelligence part of the probe, according to the newspaper.
In the inquiry, counterintelligence investigators sought to evaluate whether Trump was a potential threat to national security. They also sought to determine whether Trump was deliberately working for Russia or had unintentionally been influenced by Moscow.
Trump tweeted early Saturday that the report showed that the FBI leadership “opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof” after he had fired Comey.
Robert Mueller took over the investigation when he was appointed special counsel soon after Comey’s firing. The overall investigation is looking into Russian election interference and whether Trump’s campaign co-ordinated with the Russians, as well as possible obstruction of justice by Trump. The Times says it’s unclear whether Mueller is still pursuing the counterintelligence angle.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the report “may well suggest what it was that helped start this investigation in the first place.” He and other Democratic senators said this report and others within the past week questioning Trump’s behaviour toward Russia give new urgency to the need for the Mueller investigation to be allowed to run its course.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the Times he had no knowledge of the inquiry but said that since it was opened a year and a half ago and they hadn’t heard anything, apparently “they found nothing.”
Trump has also repeatedly and vociferously denied collusion with the Russians.