In a week where everyone who knows Donald Trump seems to be elbowing to the front of the line to provide evidence to the special counsel, or facing charges because they didn’t get in line earlier, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have their sights set on what’s clearly the most important issue of the day … Hillary Clinton’s emails. However, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have a somewhat different focus. On Friday, Democrats Robert Menendez and Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with just one big question: What happened in the meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin?
Following his earlier meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Trump returned claiming to have scored diplomatic victories and secured agreements with North Korea to dismantle their nuclear program. However, these agreements weren’t in the brief written documents that Trump produced after the micro-summit. Skeptics worried that Trump was overstating his achievements because … Trump always overstates his achievements. And the skeptics were proved right. Months after that meeting, it’s clear that Trump walked away with nothing in hand and only the vaguest of vague agreements in the bush. Despite extravagant claims, North Korea has continued to expand its capacity to produce both missiles and nuclear material, and progress toward any further actions has been minimal. The end result appears to be that North Korea got attention, legitimacy, and an end to military preparedness exercises between the United States and South Korea. The United States got short-term relief from tweets about “little rocket man.”
That record of non-achievement makes it even more important to know what was said between Trump and Putin. As with North Korea, Trump returned from his Helsinki meeting with Putin claiming important progress on everything from arms control to energy contracts. But Trump was also clearly deferential to Putin—to a much greeter degree than anyone could have expected — and there were hints in his post-meeting press conference that Putin had scored points toward territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe, as well as Trump giving the Russian leader and alarming free pass on interference with U.S. elections.
Since the Helsinki meeting, Trump has been notably silent about much of what was discussed. That’s left U.S. officials—even members of the U.S. intelligence community—in the ludicrous position of listening to Russian media and speeches by Russian politicians to find out what was said between Trump and Putin.
In the letter to Pompeo, Menedez and Shaheen note the “inability of senior officials to provide a clear and complete description” of any commitments Trump may have made during the meeting. They insist that the Foreign Relations committee be given all materials, “both classified and unclassified” … but of course, they’re unlikely to get it this side of the midterm elections.
At this moment the United States is in a ridiculous position with both North Korea and Russia—and, to a lesser extent, other countries where Trump has held talks with the leadership. Trump has made promises to the leaders of foreign countries and either misrepresented those agreements, as in the case of North Korea, or failed to provide any information about those agreements, as with Russia. Trump even came out of the meeting with Putin mentioning that they had discussed the future of nuclear arms control arrangements. And the result of that discussion was … we don’t know.
Trump and Putin apparently talked about Ukraine, but we don’t know what was said. Trump claimed they’d made some progress on the future of Syria, but we don’t know what that was. We know that Trump failed to hold Putin accountable for election interference in the United States, and has continued to behave as if the fact of this interference is in doubt.
There are, thankfully, limits on what Donald Trump can do on his own, and even greater limits on what he can do without telling any other branch of the government. But there are no limits to what he may have agreed to, or what he may have proposed.