The Slatest

What Did Trump Discuss in Calls With Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin That Got the Extra-Secrecy Treatment?

Bin Salman and Putin sit in adjacent seats amid rows of world leaders.
Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28. Jacques Witt/AFP/Getty Images

A few days short of three years ago, WikiLeaks released emails that had been stolen by Russian intelligence operatives from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta—a release that took attention away from the revelation of Donald Trump’s lewd comments during an Access Hollywood taping and may have contributed to Clinton’s surprise election loss.

A day short of one year ago, Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi security forces after being tricked into entering the country’s consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident who wrote for the Washington Post and had children who were U.S. citizens, but other than issuing perfunctory statements of regret about his death Donald Trump did little to investigate or retaliate against the top Saudi officials who may been involved in ordering it.

A day short of a week ago, we learned that Trump badgered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July about launching a bogus investigation into potential 2020 election opponent Joe Biden—and that, according to a whistleblower, the White House hid its transcript of the that conversation on a top-secret classified server not because it contained actual classified content but because it was potentially politically and legally incriminating. (If true, this would apparently violate classification laws.)

Shortly after that, the Washington Post reported that Trump had told Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. in 2017 that he had no problem with the hacking operation their country ran in 2016—and that “a memorandum summarizing the meeting was limited to a few officials with the highest security clearances in an attempt to keep the president’s comments from being disclosed publicly.”

Finally, CNN reported that the administration has also taken unusual steps to limit access to accounts of Trump’s conversations with Vladimir Putin and with Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince (Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Mohammed bin Salman, respectively). The network says no transcript of the Saudi calls were made at all, though there were likely other top administration officials present while they were taking place, and that a transcript of “at least one” Trump-Putin call was “tightly restricted” and kept from officials who would ordinarily have seen it. (It’s not clear if any information about the Putin/Saudi calls was put on the top-secret server discussed by the whistleblower, though his complaint does say that he was told other documents had been put on it for the sole purpose of hiding “politically sensitive” information.”) Trump was also previously have known to have taken the unusual step of requiring a translator to hand over notes taken during a 2017 face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin in Germany.

So, there’s allegedly some sort of ad hoc process by which Trump’s conversations with some foreign leaders are kept extra-secret. The conversations subject to that treatment are the ones he’s had with leaders who’ve conducted attacks—or are being asked to conduct attacks—against U.S. citizens (or, in Khashoggi’s case, a legal resident with numerous professional and community ties to the country). And Trump is barely capable of condemning attacks against Americans in public if they were carried out by foreign states with whom he shares political and financial interests. There’s even evidence that he appreciated Russia’s work in 2016 so much that he tried to reward it by rolling back economic sanctions.

Maybe Trump’s conversations with the Saudis and with Putin didn’t involve some sort of abhorrent profession of indifference or encouragement regarding their smear and/or murder operations against Americans. Maybe they were embarrassing enough to cover up for some other reason we don’t even know about! Either way, seems like some subpoenas are called for, on this front.