President Donald Trump spoke Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the only reason anybody knows about the call is because the Russians publicly disclosed it. The White House made no public mention of it until late Wednesday night.
According to the official Russian account of the call, shared to the Facebook page for Russia’s U.S. embassy, the discussion focused on the wildfires currently ravaging Siberia. Putin spoke of a “powerful group of aircraft” they were using to fight the wildfires. Trump offered to help with this effort, and Putin regarded this offer “as a sign that it is possible that full-scale bilateral relations will be restored in the future.”
This latest round of Trump and Putin cozying up comes just a week after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified that Russians are still very much meddling in U.S. elections.
A new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee last week confirmed the extent of Russia’s interference in 2016 and how ill-prepared the country is as it enters its 2020 election cycle. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is also facing massive public scrutiny for his unwillingness to let the Senate take up any election security legislation (the hashtag #MoscowMitch has quickly become popular online).
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Wired this week that there is every reason to worry about what’s to come. “The intelligence community’s own reporting was that Russia didn’t throw its full force of efforts in 2018,” he warned. “Chances are they’ll reserve those for the presidential election.”
Early into Trump’s first term, his administration provided only the most basic readouts of calls with foreign leaders, providing far less context as to what was discussed compared to past administrations. It was also far less than what other countries were releasing about the calls. In 2017, the full transcripts of two such calls leaked, revealing how easily foreign leaders can manipulate Trump in these isolated one-on-one conversations.
Last year, the White House said it would end the long tradition of releasing any summaries whatsoever of calls Trump has with world leaders. This week’s call with Putin seems to suggest that the administration went a step farther by ending the practice of even acknowledging when the calls have taken place.
This week’s call likewise shows how much leverage Trump is handing to Putin and other leaders. They can say whatever they want about what happened in the call and control the narrative, making it even easier for them to manipulate Trump.
After the call became public knowledge via the Russians, the White House was forced to not only admit that the call happened but offer its own summary of the discussion.
The White House only now sends a readout of today's call between Trump and Putin:
"President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin today and expressed concern over the vast wildfires afflicting Siberia. The leaders also discussed trade between the two countries.”
— Seung Min Kim (@seungminkim) August 1, 2019
This new readout is curious. First, it mentions that they discussed trade, which is new information but also could be a different interpretation of “fully-fledged bilateral relations.”
Second, this suggests that Trump himself expressed concern about the wildfires in Siberia, which is surprising for two reasons. The wildfires have not been mentioned much at all in U.S. news, so it’s curious what Trump knew of them before the call and why. Moreover, the offer of support is a far cry from last year, when he blamed California for its own wildfires and threatened to cut federal funding over what he believed was “gross mismanagement of the forests.”
There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2018
Both readouts of the call seem to confirm that Trump is likely hoping to win more of Putin’s good graces ahead of the next election. This is in stark contrast to the increasing public awareness that Russia poses a very significant threat in 2020 and that Trump, McConnell, and other Republican lawmakers are doing nothing to protect against that interference.