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The weekend’s Trump-Russia news, explained

Trump hiding Putin meeting details, the counterintelligence investigation into the president, and Bill Barr’s promises on the Mueller probe.

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The question of what, exactly, is up with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin has long been at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — and a pair of reports this weekend offered new and remarkable details on this topic.

First, on Friday evening, the New York Times confirmed for the first time that in May 2017, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president himself was secretly working with or co-opted by Russia.

We already knew the FBI had a counterintelligence investigation about the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, and that it had been investigating Trump for potential obstruction of justice. And reports about Mueller’s activity — such as his questions for the president — had long made clear the special counsel was interested in Trump’s Russia ties. Still, if we take a step back, it’s rather incredible that the FBI officially opened an investigation into whether the president was working on Russia’s behalf.

Second, on Saturday evening, the Washington Post reported that since President Trump has been in office, he “has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations” with Putin from even members of his own administration — including once telling his own translator to turn over his notes and not tell anyone what had taken place.

Taken together, the two scoops show that while the president was under investigation for his ties to Putin, he was trying quite hard to keep his meetings with Putin secret. Perhaps there is some sort of innocent explanation, but it certainly makes one wonder whether he’s trying to hide something.

All this news informs the drama that will unfold this week, as Trump’s new attorney general nominee, Bill Barr, will face confirmation hearings beginning Tuesday. On Monday morning, Barr released a statement promising to allow Mueller to “complete his work” — but he remained somewhat vague about just how much of Mueller’s findings might be made public.

The New York Times revealed that the FBI opened an investigation into whether Trump was working on Russia’s behalf

The New York Times’s Adam Goldman, Michael Schmidt, and Nicholas Fandos dropped their bombshell report revealing that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump in May 2017.

In one sense, the new story is completely unsurprising. Of course the “Trump-Russia investigation” has been about getting to the bottom of Trump’s links to Russia — your head would have to have been in the sand for years for you to think otherwise. (“My concern with this story is that it felt, to some extent, like it was a ‘duh’ story,” Goldman told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner.)

But the story revealed significant new details that added to our understanding of the probe. The timeline of the investigation, we now know, is as follows:

  • In July 2016, the FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation into whether various Trump campaign officials were linked to Russia. This probe would focus particularly on four campaign advisers: George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page.
  • In late 2016 and early 2017, the FBI was “suspicious” of Trump’s Russia links as well, per the Times. But they did not yet choose to explicitly name the president as a focus of their investigation alongside those four advisers — perhaps out of fear of political controversy.
  • In May 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, that changed. The bureau then quickly approved an investigation into not only whether Trump had criminally obstructed justice (which we learned of long ago) but also whether Trump had been acting on Russia’s behalf.
  • Shortly afterward, on May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to take charge of the probe.

Goldman suggested an interesting implication of all this in his interview with Chotiner — that Mueller will be tasked with answering the question of whether Trump was working on Russia’s behalf by the time his work concludes.

“Mueller inherited this, and he will have to end it,” Goldman said. ”And it seems to me he will have to articulate, if he hasn’t already, why there wasn’t evidence to support this idea — or maybe there was.” (Read my fuller explainer for more.)

The Washington Post revealed that Trump went to “extraordinary lengths” to hide details of his conversations with Putin

Then on Saturday evening, the Washington Post’s Greg Miller advanced this theme further with a report taking stock of how Trump had handled his face-to-face meetings with Putin over the past year and a half — with the common thread being that he very much wanted to keep the details secret.

“There is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years,” Miller writes.

The weirdness includes:

  • In July 2017, Trump met Putin in Hamburg, Germany, accompanied by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a US translator. After the meeting, Trump took his translator’s notes and told him “not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials,” Miller reports. He also quotes US officials saying they had great difficulty getting any readout on what took place at the meeting.
  • Later that same day, at a dinner with many world leaders, Trump had a lengthy discussion with Putin for which no Americans were present (Putin’s interpreter did the translation). Interestingly, this chat took place after the New York Times had learned about and asked for comment on Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, but before its story was published.
  • In July 2018, Trump and Putin met in Helsinki, Finland. In their initial meeting, they were accompanied by several US officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton. But then Trump and Putin had another two-hour meeting in private, with only interpreters present.

All this is highly unusual behavior for a US president. Why is Trump so set on having private talks with Putin, without even his own top aides present? And why doesn’t he want any documentation of these meetings circulating in the administration?

Bill Barr promised to let Mueller finish — but was more vague about what he’d make public

Finally, in preparation for confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee that start Tuesday, Trump’s attorney general nominee, Bill Barr, released a prepared statement giving more details on how he says he’ll handle Mueller’s probe.

The context here is that last June, Barr — then an outside attorney — wrote a 19-page memo to the Justice Department blasting Mueller’s investigation of the president for obstruction of justice and disputing what he believed to be Mueller’s legal theory behind the inquiry.

In the statement, Barr attempts to address his memo by saying it was only about “a specific obstruction-of-justice theory under a single statute that I thought, based on media reports, the Special Counsel might be considering.” That is, he says his memo is not about the “core investigation into Russian interfere in the 2016 election,” or “other potential obstruction-of-justice theories.”

Barr also gives some more details on how he says he’ll handle the probe generally.

First, he makes it pretty clear that he won’t attempt to rein in Mueller or shut down the probe. “I believe it is vitally important that the Special Counsel be allowed to complete his investigation,” Barr says. “On my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work.” That’s an important concession, considering the fears of many that Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an effort to rein in the probe.

Second, Barr also suggests that he’d try to make some of Mueller’s reports public — but is vaguer there on exactly what he’d do and how he’d do it. He says:

I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the Special Counsel’s work. For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.

There’s a lot of wiggle room here. He wants to inform the public and Congress of the “results” — but he doesn’t say how much detail he would like to provide, or in what format. His phrase “consistent with the law” might also suggest he could conclude he’s legally constrained from making some of this information public. Expect senators to press Barr for more details here this week.