Trump’s interactions with Putin and other Russian officials were certainly far from the normally carefully choreographed talks between world leaders — Trump early on in his tenure went as far as to disclose classified information to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office.
But former senior Trump advisers said it was rare that Trump would say anything to the Russian leader that he had not already said publicly (or would simply blurt out later while complaining about “the Russia hoax”). Marina Gross, who interpreted many of Trump’s calls and meetings with Putin, told associates that listening to their conversations often felt like eavesdropping on two friends chatting in a bar, according to one former official.
Still, the shadow diplomatic campaigns that flourished during the Trump administration are also top of mind for the Biden team as it works to understand the often disjointed policies of the last four years. Trump’s ill-fated call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which led to his impeachment, was also hidden in the NSC codeword system, as were Trump’s calls with the Saudi royal family.
“This is much bigger than just Russia and Putin,” said another former Trump administration official. “It’s a problem across the board for the new team — basically, trying to find out, what did [Trump] promise people left right and center?”
John Eisenberg, the former top lawyer on Trump’s NSC who was involved in placing the president’s calls in the top-secret server, will now be one of Trump’s representatives handling some records requests from the Biden White House, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The Biden NSC’s Russia review is being led in part by the council’s acting senior director for Russia and Central Asia, Eric Green, a veteran foreign service officer who for years specialized in Russia at the State Department. Green recently replaced Andrea Kendall-Taylor who left for personal reasons.
The Biden and Trump NSC staff consulted on a range of issues, including Russia, during the transition. And officials said it was generally thorough. In the days and weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s outgoing NSC staff turned over binders full of material — including intelligence reports, strategy documents and information about ongoing operations — to facilitate a smooth transition.
The incoming national security team likewise grilled their predecessors on the obligations and commitments the Trump administration had made to both allies and adversaries, including to Russia. Some Trump staffers — primarily detailees from other federal agencies — remained on the NSC after Jan. 20 for the sake of continuity of government and have been helpful in answering the new NSC’s questions.
“We really tried hard to do it well,” said the second former Trump official, who participated in the process.