Donald Trump spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, but no recording was kept of the call — even though Trump has been accused of uncomfortably close relations with Russia and the country is believed by United States intelligence agencies to have tampered with the 2016 presidential election.
What the two leaders discussed, however, will never be known with certainty outside of the inner circles of each president, because according to a statement by Ilan Berman of the conservative American Foreign Policy Council think tank, White House officials turned off the recording equipment used to keep permanent records of all presidential discussions with foreign leaders, according to a report by the news site Raw Story on Thursday.
The White House issued only a brief summary, or “readout,” of the call, saying that the conversation between Trump and Putin covered “mutual cooperation in defeating [IS] to efforts in working together to achieve more peace throughout the world, including Syria,” and that both presidents “are hopeful that after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”
Moscow, however, issued a somewhat longer — though still concise — readout, meaning that journalists, historians and the public are now almost completely reliant on a Kremlin account of the Trump-Putin phone call.
“Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had a detailed discussion of pressing international issues, including the fight against terrorism, the situation in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, strategic stability and non-proliferation, the situation with Iran’s nuclear programme, and the Korean Peninsula issue,” the Kremlin said in the four-paragraph summary. “The discussion also touched upon the main aspects of the Ukrainian crisis. The sides agreed to build up partner cooperation in these and other areas.”
But within 24 hours of the unrecorded call between Trump and Putin, Russia dramatically escalated attacks in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has been waging a proxy war against the government of Ukraine since March of 2014.
Attacks Sunday morning killed five Ukrainian soldiers and wounded nine more. Since the attacks began, reports from Ukrainian authorities say that 12 soldiers were killed and 57 wounded along with an unspecified number of civilians.
Russia, however, blamed Ukraine for starting the violence, claiming that “the leadership of Ukraine supported Hillary (Clinton), now they need to build relationships: war is the easiest way to involve the United States in its problems.”
Путин: Руководство Украины поддерживало Хиллари, теперь им нужно налаживать отношения: через войну легче всего затянуть США в свои проблемы pic.twitter.com/ZcKwQj7bjV
— Дмитрий Смирнов (@dimsmirnov175) February 2, 2017
Whether the escalated violence by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine is connected to something said between Trump and Putin cannot be determined, due to the apparently deliberate failure to create a recording of the call. But some experts are skeptical of claims that the two events were coincidental.
“Could it have been just a coincidence that Russian-backed forces in Ukraine launched their biggest offensive in months the day after Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with President Trump?” wrote the Washington Post in an editorial on Monday. “Somehow, we doubt it.
But the horrific fighting in Ukraine was not the only development involving Trump and Russia in the aftermath of the non-recorded phone call.
On Thursday, the Trump administration quietly eased one element of the sanctions imposed on Russia by President Barack Obama. The sanctions were imposed as retaliation against Russia for the country’s alleged cyber-hacking campaign to tamper with the 2016 election — tampering that intelligence agencies say was designed to help Trump and damage Clinton.
The modification lifted the restriction on “certain transactions with the Federal Security Service,” the Russian intelligence agency that is the successor to the Soviet KGB.
While some U.S. experts called the change a “technical fix,” former FSB Director Nikolai Kovalyov took a broader view, hailing the change as a sign of U.S.-Russia cooperation that “shows that actual joint work on establishing an anti-terrorism coalition is about to begin.”
[Featured Image by Drew Angerer/Getty Images]