Questions mount over Trump-Putin discussions

The White House is facing mounting pressure to disclose details of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller MORE’s discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin from this week’s summit in Helsinki.

The one-on-one meeting between the two leaders has been shrouded in controversy ever since Trump, standing beside Putin following the meeting, cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the election in favor of Putin’s own denials.

Trump administration officials have said little specifically about any agreements reached or proposals made during the meeting.

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Instead, they’ve had to bat down queries about whether Trump was going to go along with a Putin plan to have Russian officials interview U.S. citizens, including former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Putin also floated the possibility of a referendum to determine whether Crimea would be part of Ukraine and Russia, an idea the administration did not immediately shoot down.

Trump’s closest advisers appear oblivious to what was actually discussed in the meeting with Putin — further fueling questions about what was discussed.

And on Friday, they got another unwelcome distraction unrelated to Russia. News accounts reported that the president’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who is under federal investigation, taped the president discussing a payment involving Playboy model Karen McDougal, who says she had an affair with Trump.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been spinning its own narrative.

A Russian military spokesman said Tuesday that Moscow is ready to begin implementing agreements reached “in the sphere of international security.”

In Washington, it’s not entirely clear what those agreements might be — something that is a worry to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump: ‘Nothing bad can happen' from meeting with foreign leaders The US must not turn its back on refugees Taiwan is key to US power in Pacific MORE is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he is set for a grilling.

The lack of information has created a topsy-turvy situation that many are unused to, said Anita McBride, who worked in various roles in the White House and State Department during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

“It’s better to talk than to not talk, but we are used to, as Americans, to [being assured] that our upper hand and our leverage is not lost,” she said. “I think that’s what people are questioning now.”

Former officials note that the idea of a one-on-one meeting, while rare, is not unprecedented. Former President Ronald Reagan met with former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

What is highly unusual, they say, is that top administration officials seem to have little knowledge about what was discussed.

Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsCNN: Trump intel chief not consulted before decision to revoke Brennan's clearance Study: 3 of every 10 House candidate websites vulnerable to hacks West Virginia set to allow smartphone voting for those serving overseas MORE, who regularly briefs Trump on intelligence, admitted Thursday that he doesn’t know what happened in the meeting. He was also caught off guard during a live television interview on Thursday when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell informed him that Trump was inviting Putin to Washington for a second summit this fall.

Coats isn’t alone.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the top U.S. general in the Middle East, told reporters on Thursday that he had received “no specified direction” following the meeting.

“This is a really shockingly abnormal breach of standard protocol,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department official under the Obama administration.

Harrell said that, under normal circumstances, the president would bring a note taker, such as an ambassador or high-level official, to the meeting who could make a record of the discussions that could be used to brief Cabinet secretaries.

Trump’s own statements have fueled speculation about what he may have promised Putin during the tête-à-tête. Initially, Trump said that Putin had made the “incredible offer” that Russia would allow U.S. investigators access to Russians accused of cyberattacks against the 2016 elections if Moscow could interrogate Americans accused of unspecified crimes.

The White House on Wednesday indicated that the administration was reviewing the request, shortly before the State Department shot down the assertion as “absolutely absurd.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders eventually said that Trump “disagrees” with the proposal.  

The developments have been met with growing questions from Capitol Hill. On Thursday, House Democrats unsuccessfully sought to subpoena Marina Gross, the interpreter and the single other person in the Trump-Putin meeting, to testify before Congress.

Republicans broadly reject the idea of forcing the translator to testify, but are still hungry for answers from the administration, particularly after Trump’s bungled statements on Russia's election interference.

“What I do expect is the administration, and the president, eventually to tell us, were any agreements reached?” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate gets to work in August — but many don’t show up Graham: Flynn should lose security clearance Press needs to restore its credibility on the FBI and Justice Department MORE (R-S.C.) said Thursday. “I don’t care what they talked about; I care about what we do. You can talk to Putin all day long. Here’s what I want to know: What did you agree to do with him, and give us a chance to see if we think it makes any sense.”

Trump told CNBC in an interview that aired Friday that he and Putin “had a tremendous discussion on many things, [including] terrorism, Syria, the Middle East overall, Iran. We talked about, as an example, nuclear proliferation.”

He declined to answer questions on Friday afternoon as he left the White House to spend the weekend in New Jersey.

At least one agreement was reached in Helsinki: a deal cementing a future meeting between the two leaders.

The administration argues that an ongoing dialogue with Russia is key to working on issues of mutual concern.

“It is incredibly valuable to the people of the United States of America that President Putin and President Trump continue to engage in dialogue to resolve the difficult issues that our countries face between each other,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Friday. “I think this makes enormous sense, and I am very hopeful that that meeting will take place this fall.”

Still, the circumstances surrounding Helsinki, coupled with the lack of details about what agreements may have been broached or reached, have provoked broader questions and even concerns about the private discussions between the two leaders — and the prospect of future ones.

“I think that is consistent with Trump having said from the beginning that he wants to have dialogue with Putin,” McBride said. “I think, really, the American president should be meeting with world leaders all the time.”

But, she added, “We need be confident and convinced that the discussions are having the intended impact that they should have.”

Jordan Fabian and Olivia Beavers contributed.