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As Russians describe ‘verbal agreements’ at summit, U.S. officials scramble for clarity

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 7/19/2018 Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan, Anton Troianovski

President Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. © Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images President Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. Two days after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, Russian officials offered a string of assertions about what the two leaders had achieved.

“Important verbal agreements” were reached at the Helsinki meeting, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, including preservation of the New Start and INF agreements, major bilateral arms control treaties whose futures have been in question. Antonov also said that Putin had made “specific and interesting proposals to Washington” on how the two countries could cooperate on Syria.

But officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military, scrambling since Monday to determine what Trump may have agreed to on national security issues in Helsinki, had little to no information Wednesday.

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At the Pentagon, as press officers remained unable to answer media questions about how the summit might impact the military, the paucity of information exposed an awkward gap in internal administration communications. The uncertainty surrounding Moscow’s suggestion of some sort of new arrangement or proposal regarding Syria, in particular, was striking because Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, is scheduled to brief reporters on Syria and other matters Thursday.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did not attend Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting with Trump and has not appeared in public this week or commented on the summit.

Current and former officials said it’s not unusual for it to take at least several days for aides to finalize and distribute internal memos documenting high-level conversations. Adding to the delay in the case of Trump’s Russia summit is the fact that the president’s longest encounter with Putin, a two hour-plus session, included no other officials or note-takers, just interpreters.

Trump continued to praise his private meeting with Putin and an expanded lunch with aides as a “tremendous success” and tweeted a promise of “big results,” but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the administration was “assessing . . . three takeaways,” which she characterized as “modest.” They were the establishment of separate working groups of business leaders and foreign policy experts, and follow-up meetings between the national security council staffs of both countries.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders listed a number of topics that had been discussed, including “Syrian ­humanitarian aid, Iran’s nuclear ambition, Israeli security, North Korean denuclearization, Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, reducing Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, and of course your favorite topic, Russia’s interference in our elections.”

But while Trump told law­makers this week that he and Putin had made “significant progress toward addressing” these issues and more, neither Sanders nor any other U.S. official from Trump on down has offered specifics on what was accomplished on those subjects beyond what she called “the beginning of a dialogue with Russia.”

Asked about calls from congressional Democrats for testimony from the U.S. interpreter, Sanders said it was a question for the State Department. Nauert said that there was no precedent for such a demand and that there had been “no formal request” for such an appearance. “Overall, as a general matter,” she said, “we always seek to work with Congress, and that’s all I have on this, okay?”

Some military officials, accustomed a year and a half into the Trump administration to a ­decision-making process that is far less structured than it was under President Barack Obama, appeared unfazed by the lack of clarity. Unlike Obama, who oversaw a national security process that was famously meticulous and often slow, Trump has presided over a more fluid, less formally deliberative system.

Few if any top-level national security meetings, for example, have been held this spring following the administration’s attack on Syrian military facilities in April, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That shift, while welcome by those frustrated by the pace of decision-making under Obama, may provide top military officials less regular access to their commander in chief and fewer opportunities to influence the policy process.

Nonmilitary officials who were provided minimal, indirect readouts expressed confidence that no agreement had been struck with Putin on Syria, and that Trump — who early this year expressed a desire to withdraw all U.S. troops from that country — made clear to Putin that no American departure was imminent.

One idea under consideration, Antonov said, was a joint U.S.-Russian fight against terrorism in Syria. “It seemed to me, my impression was that the U.S. side listened . . . with interest,” he said. Russia has, like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, defined all opponents of the Syrian government as “terrorists” and made similar proposals throughout the seven-year Syrian civil war.

The leaders also discussed an earlier agreement Russia had reached with Israel — based on a 1974 United Nations agreement — to keep all Iranian and proxy forces fighting on behalf of ­Assad’s military at least 50 miles from Syria’s border with the ­Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and not to contest Israeli strikes against perceived threats from Iranian proxies inside Syria.

At the Russian Foreign Ministry, spokeswoman Marina Zakharova said that implementation of summit agreements had already begun. “A lot of what the president of the Russian Federation talked about is now being worked through,” she said. “Relevant instructions are being carried out, and diplomats are beginning to work on the outcomes.”

Richard Fontaine, a former U.S. official and adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who now heads the Center for a New American Security, said the Helsinki summit illustrated Trump’s evolving management of national security affairs and his handling of advice from senior advisers such as White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mattis.

“It seems to be certain that Trump is becoming more confident in his foreign policy instincts, and more likely to go with his gut,” Fontaine said. “He seems more comfortable now overruling them and doing his own thing.”

While a void remained in U.S. descriptions of the summit, Antonov called it “important, comprehensive, productive, and constructive.”

Putin is expected to speak about the summit in a speech Thursday.

Antonov said it was “very bitter” to hear the intense criticism in the United States of the Helsinki meeting. He cited Trump’s reference to investigations of Russian election interference as a “witch hunt,” and said Russia was “a hostage to the domestic political battle” in the United States.

“When I return from Moscow, I will have the very clear-cut and lucid determination to go knock on every door at the State Department and the National Security Council to understand what we can do together in order to realize the agreements, the ideas, that the two presidents supported,” Antonov said.

“Even in talking with you now, I am afraid to say something positive about the American president,” he said, “because when American journalists or policymakers read my interview, they’ll say Russia is again meddling and helping Donald Trump.”

deyoungk@washpost.com

missy.ryan@washpost.com

anton.troianovski@washpost.com

Troianovski reported from Moscow.

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