Trump-Russia row: Putin offers to release records of meeting


A file handout photo made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei KislyakImage copyright
EPA

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Mr Trump met Sergei Lavrov (L) and Ambassador Kislyak (R) last Wednesday

Vladimir Putin has offered to release a record of Russian officials’ meeting with Donald Trump, who is alleged to have passed them sensitive information.

US media say Mr Trump passed on classified information last week, but Russia says this is not the case.

Mr Putin said Russian records would be given to the US Congress and Senate if a request was made for them.

The news comes amid reports Mr Trump tried to influence an investigation into his team’s links with Russia.

US media have quoted a memo by former FBI director James Comey that reportedly says Mr Trump asked him to drop an inquiry into links between his ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia.

Issue one: The Russian meeting

Mr Trump met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the White House last Wednesday.

The meeting came amid an ongoing FBI inquiry and congressional hearings into possible Russian influence in the 2016 US election.

It also came a day after Mr Trump dismissed Mr Comey from his post.

On Monday, the Washington Post, followed by a number of other US outlets, said Mr Trump gave the Russian officials information relating to the Islamic State group (IS) that could have endangered the source of the information.

The information was reportedly deemed so sensitive it had not been shared with key US partners, let alone Russia, which is allied to US opponents in Syria.

Mr Trump later defended his right to share the information, and his national security adviser HR McMaster said the president’s actions were “wholly appropriate”.

On Wednesday, Mr Putin joked that the meeting did not unfold as had been portrayed.

“I spoke to him [Lavrov] today,” he said. “I’ll be forced to issue him with a reprimand because he did not share these secrets with us.”

Issue two: The Comey memo

What does it say?

While in charge at the FBI, Mr Comey was heading an investigation into possible Russian influence on the US election.

The Russia story has already claimed one victim – Mr Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired after misleading the government over his meetings with Mr Kislyak.

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Media captionTrump’s love-hate relationship with Comey over a tumultuous year

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Mr Comey wrote a memo following a meeting with the president on 14 February, revealing that Mr Trump had asked him to close an investigation into Mr Flynn’s actions.

He reportedly shared the memo with top FBI associates.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” the president told Mr Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy.”

Mr Comey did not respond to his request, according to the memo, but replied: “I agree he is a good guy.”

The FBI chief was later fired by Mr Trump. The official reason was over his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while at the state department.

But Mr Trump said in an interview last week that “this Russian thing” was on his mind as he made the decision.

The official response

The White House denied the allegation that Mr Trump had tried to influence Mr Comey.

“The president has never asked Mr Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” it said.

In response to the New York Times report, a White House official pointed out that acting FBI director Andrew McCabe had testified last week that there had been “no effort to impede our investigation to date”.

The fallout

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Twitter

A senior Republican congressman has called on the FBI to hand over Mr Comey’s records of his contacts with Mr Trump.

House Oversight Committee chair Jason Chaffetz demanded that all correspondence be presented by 24 May.

In a letter to Mr McCabe, Mr Chaffetz said the memo, along with others made by Mr Comey from his meetings with the president, “raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede the FBI’s investigation”.

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Media captionA wild week for Trump in Washington

Has Trump obstructed justice?

Adam Schiff, the highest-ranked Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said this intervention by Mr Trump, if correct, amounted to “interference or obstruction of the investigation”.

The key legal statute is 18 US Code Section 1512, which contains a broad definition allowing charges to be brought against someone who “obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so”.

It has been pointed out that Mr Trump did have the legal authority to fire Mr Comey, but there is a legal precedent for otherwise lawful acts to be considered an obstruction of justice if done with corrupt intentions, the New York Times says.

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Media captionTrump sharing intelligence “very serious” says ex-defence chief

Legal experts have told the Washington Post that that is not clear in this case as intent is difficult to prove.

However, former federal prosecutor Samuel Buell told the Times: “The evidence of improper purpose has gotten much stronger since the day of Comey’s firing.

“Trump has made admissions about that. And we now have evidence that he may have indicated an improper purpose previously in his communications with Comey about the Russia investigation.”


The I-word surfaces – Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Washington

The “I” word – impeachment – has already been broached by politicians as moderate as independent Senator Angus King of Maine. If this were a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, articles of impeachment would likely be in the drafting process.

Republicans still call the shots in Congress, however, and it’s a significant leap to get them to abandon the Trump presidency and any hope of advancing their agenda for the foreseeable future.

But some, like Senator John McCain – who said this has become a scandal of “Watergate size and scale” – are clearly wavering.

The former Republican presidential nominee is a bit of a wild card, of course.

For the rank-and-file to turn on the president will require them to admit their complicity in a failed presidency.


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