White House urged to give full account of Trump's private talks with Putin

  • Russian officials hail ‘important verbal agreements’ in Helsinki
  • Democrats: ‘Utterly amazing that no one knows what was said’

The White House was under growing pressure on Thursday to provide a full account of Donald Trump’s private talks earlier this week with Vladimir Putin, as Russian officials spoke of “important verbal agreements” made.

As some Democrats went as far as to push for the US interpreter in the room during Monday’s summit in Helsinki to give an account to Congress, Putin on Thursday hailed the meeting as a “success”.

In the aftermath of the outcry from Democrats and some Republicans around Trump’s remarks, in which he sided with Putin rather than US intelligence over Russian interference in US elections, attention shifted to what was said in the private talks.

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This was heightened after comments on Wednesday by Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, who told reporters in Moscow the two leaders had reached “important verbal agreements”, including preservation of the New Start and INF arms control agreements.

Antonov, who called the meeting “important, comprehensive, productive and constructive”, said the Russian president had made “specific and interesting proposals to Washington” on how the two countries could cooperate on Syria.

Antonov said that one idea under consideration was a joint US-Russian fight against terrorism. “It seemed to me, my impression was that the US side listened … with interest,” he reportedly said.

Trump, in an interview late on Wednesday with CBS News, gave a vague outline of the discussions and said Putin was responsible for the cyber-espionage assault on US political institutions before the 2016 election because “he’s in charge of the country”.

Early Thursday, Trump promoted the Helsinki talks on Twitter and said he looked forward to his next Putin meeting – though it was unclear when exactly this is expected to be.

Trump tweeted: “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear …”

Trump’s latest comments followed another day of reversals, backflips and ambiguous statements on Wednesday that have increased unease over what the two leaders discussed, and the agreements they may have reached, during the two-hour, one-on-one meeting in the Finnish capital.

One area is an apparent discussion between the two leaders over letting Russia question former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul about US interference in Russian affairs in exchange for giving special counsel Robert Mueller access to interviews with Russians indicted in connection with the pre-election hack of Democratic party servers in 2016.

On Wednesday White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out the Kremlin’s request to question McFaul and other Americans.

But on Thursday Sanders said: “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”

Christopher Wray, the FBI director, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, said on Wednesday that Moscow’s offer of assistance in the investigation of Russian military intelligence officials indicted in the US on espionage charges, was “not high on our list of investigative techniques”.

On Wednesday evening, Trump described a range of topics he and Putin had discussed, including nuclear proliferation and the protection of Israel. On North Korea, Trump said Putin “agrees with what I’m doing and that I’m doing a great job. He said he’d help, and I think he will.”

“I think we have a deal. There’s no rush. There’s no missiles going off. We have our hostages back. There’s no testing, so we’ve come a long way in a short period of time. There is no rush, but we would like to see the denuclearization of North Korea. He [Putin] feels strongly about and I feel strongly about it, so that’s good.”

In his Wednesday remarks, the ambassador, Antonov, also reported that the two leaders had discussed keeping all Iranian and pro-Assad proxy forces at least 50 miles from Syria’s border with the ­Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marina Zakharova said “relevant instructions are being carried out, and diplomats are beginning to work on the outcomes”.

But US officials appeared to be in the dark on specifics or if any formal agreement on Syria was reached.

US defense secretary Jim Mattis has not commented on the summit. Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said: “When we are able to provide more details, we will, but rest assured, the US Department of Defense remains laser focused on the defense of our nation.”

State department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the administration was “assessing … three takeaways”, which she characterized as “modest”.

With no aides or stenographers present at the meeting, there were mounting calls from congressional leaders to subpoena Marina Gross, the US interpreter at the meeting, to offer her understanding of what was discussed.

That effort, led by Senate Democrats, was quickly blocked by Republicans on the House intelligence committee. New York senator Chuck Schumer said it was “utterly amazing that no one knows what was said.

“This is a democracy. If your president makes agreements with one of our leading if not our leading adversary, his cabinet has to know about it and so do the American people.”

At the White House, Sanders said this was a question for the state department. Nauert responded that there is no precedent for making interpreters available to Congress and that there had been “no formal request” for such an appearance.

In the first public poll since the summit, a CBS News survey found only a third of Americans (32%) approved of the way Donald Trump handled the meeting, and 39% reported feeling less confident after the summit about Trump standing up for US interests.

The results were split down party lines, with 68% of Republicans approving of the president’s Helsinki performance.

• This article was amended on 23 July 2018 because an earlier version referred to a translator, when an interpreter was meant.


Edward Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

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