Few Trump-era mysteries are as intriguing as what the 45th president said to Vladimir Putin in at least a dozen rambling, off-the-cuff calls and meetings over four years. Understanding what was said between the two could help illuminate whether Trump ever revealed sensitive information or struck any deals with the Kremlin leader that could take the new administration by surprise.
Now that President Joe Biden is in the White House, he can see for himself.
“They don’t need our approval to see those [records],” a former Trump White House official said, referring to the new Biden national security team. “Biden owns all the call materials. There is only one president at a time.”
The Biden White House did not comment on whether it had seen the content of the calls. But so far, at least, the National Security Council has not registered any complaints with their ability to access relevant call records from the previous administration.
“It is a national security priority to find out what Trump said to Putin” over his four years in office, said one former national security official who is close to the new president. “Some things, like what happened in some face-to-face meetings where no American translator or note-taker was present, may never be fully known. But I would be very surprised if the new national security team were not trying to access” the call records.
Trump closely guarded his private conversations with foreign leaders while in office, going as far as to have some hidden in the NSC’s top-secret codeword system to limit staffers’ and even cabinet members’ access and prevent leaks. Readouts of Trump’s calls with Putin would often come from the Kremlin first, or through Trump’s Twitter feed. But while the calls were not recorded, aides were typically still on the line and taking notes of what was said. The resulting loose transcripts are known as “memcons,” or memorandums of conversation.
Trump went to particularly great lengths to keep his in-person conversations with the Russian leader private, from confiscating his interpreter’s notes to forgoing American translators and notetakers altogether in their meetings. That desire for secrecy has extended even past his time in office. One former Trump official argued last week that records of Trump’s conversations with Putin, which often lasted an hour or more, should not be made available to his successor.
“There are certain things a president and his immediate staff should be able to hold privileged to do the work of government, without being subject to constant partisan gamesmanship,” said a second former Trump White House official.
Memcons, including Trump’s calls with Putin, are considered presidential records, and were not expunged before the 45th president left office, one former Trump White House official said. They were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration at the end of Trump’s term, as is customary.
“Of course we didn’t delete anything and they would be in NARA and accessible,” the official said.
Kel McClanahan, executive director of the law firm National Security Counselors, agreed as a legal matter: “The only person who can claim executive privilege anywhere is the sitting president,” he said. “So there is literally no situation, nor could there be, where a former president could keep a sitting president from seeing something.”