The revelation that President Trump had a second, previously undisclosed hour-long conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the recent Group of 20 meetings in Hamburg, with only the Russian translator present was rather startling. This second meeting came on the heels of their earlier one, in which only U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was present from the U.S. side; it is still not clear what type of formal record Tillerson might have created.
Typically, the gist of conversations among leaders and their top advisers is captured in specialized documents that are kept for the record — Memorandums of Conversations (MemCons). Just as journalists love scoops, scholars love to be the first to unearth a high-level MemCon among leaders and their top advisers.
But MemCons are not just useful for future scholars. Government officials who create MemCons are not writing them for the historical record; these notes can provide real value for policymakers in the moment, and ultimately for the president himself. If they don’t know what he said, they can’t help him formulate meaningful policy as much as they otherwise might. MemCons are an important tool for presidents to get what they want.
Note-takers aren’t writing these for future scholars
The paucity of a good record for the two Trump-Putin meetings would fit a pattern set during the period between the election and inauguration, when Trump had meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders with no or few notes taken as far as we know.
What’s the big deal? For starters, national security aides who are not in the meetings rely on these notes to understand the state of play of their principals’ conversations so they can help advise those principals in making policy. They need MemCons so they can follow up on things their principal has said and especially on things that have been promised to the other side. In some cases, bureaucratic players create different versions of the MemCon to be given to different parts of government as a way to control policy; Henry Kissinger was a master of this game. If you don’t know what’s been said, you are going to have a hard time contributing to the policy.
Summit dinners with heads of state alone are always nerve-racking for staff who don’t know what’s discussed — what was startling in this case was that the encounter lasted an hour.
Detailed note-taking is also really hard
As any scholar can tell you, MemCons vary widely in quality. They typically aren’t verbatim transcripts and can sometimes miss the nuance of what was said, as we know by comparing MemCons to presidential tapes, such as the one from the meeting President John F. Kennedy had with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko about six weeks before Kennedy’s assassination.
Sometimes, as can be the case with presidential phone calls, multiple staff members sit in the Situation Room taking notes to ensure as accurate a record as possible. Other in-person meetings have mid-level staff taking notes while the principals talk. MemCons are particularly thin if the president only has a secretary of state or national security adviser present to take notes since the “plus one” is often an important figure in the meeting and does not have time when the meeting is over to produce a great record of what was said.
Having no one with the president means there is no formal record. The lack of a good record of these meetings is thus not only making future scholars of this period cringe, it’s making the job of every member of the national security team that much more difficult.
Of course, MemCons aren’t perfect, and policymakers can draw incorrect inferences of what was actually discussed at a meeting. Fred I. Greenstein and Richard H. Immerman recount a meeting that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had with Kennedy the day before the latter’s inauguration regarding the former’s advice on what to do about Indochina. Four individuals present took notes, and the notes differ considerably on exactly what Eisenhower advised his successor about U.S. military intervention.
We don’t know what Trump and Putin discussed
It was hard enough piecing together what Trump and Putin discussed at the meeting Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended on the margins of the G-20, given the different readouts that occurred right after. It’s impossible to know what Trump and Putin discussed at their second meeting even if they each offer to provide information.
Think about what that means for an National Security Council staff member or even national security adviser H.R. McMaster. They have to wonder what the boss said, whether he promised anything on sanctions, or further discussed the Syrian cease-fire, or most worrisome, Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
But it’s not just the staff that should be concerned. Trump himself should want notes taken for anything beyond dinnertime chitchat. He may believe just the opposite; after all, if there are no witnesses, no one can prove any charges that he might have said something he should not have. But then again, if he or one of his advisers wants to convince a reporter of what he did say, there’s also no record to draw upon.
MemCons matter for scholars too
Of course, we should not discount the importance of the historical record. Many scholars have used repositories like presidential libraries that have just opened up new documents from 25 to 30 years earlier to create much better understandings of historical events. Others have made successful use of the Freedom of Information Act to illuminate more recent policy debates or major decision moments such as the Iraq War.
Last summer, I argued, for example, that a MemCon recounting a discussion U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in October 1993 is extremely helpful in understanding Russian attitudes toward the Clinton administration’s pursuit of NATO enlargement that followed and continues to feature in the West’s relations with Russia today.
Although this White House leaks like a sieve, it is shaping up to be a White House short on good records of high-level meetings, unless Trump actually does have tapes as he suggested and then denied, regarding his conversations with former FBI director James B. Comey. That’s too bad for historians of the future trying to make sense of this presidency, and particularly the Trump-Putin relationship.
James Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service at American University.