Trump vs. Media: Release the Memcon

This picture taken in March 1997 shows U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin shaking hands at the Presidential Palace
This picture taken in March 1997 shows U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin shaking hands at the Presidential Palace / Getty Images
May 16, 2017

The media feeding frenzy triggered by a sensational Washington Post story alleging President Trump leaked classified information to the Russians ended abruptly today—like biting into a popcorn kernel and breaking a molar.

"What I'm saying is really the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security," said White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

The three-star general spoke to reporters and was about as categorical as possible in discussing an Oval Office conversation that no doubt is classified.

The anti-Trump press still clung to the Post story, with the usual suspects on cable channels parsing McMaster's remarks as somehow a non-denial denial or some such formulation.

But an easier way for the White House to solve the dispute would be to release the official memorandum of conversation, known as a memcon, of Trump's May 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Memcons are the official record paraphrasing what transpired at this sort of high-level meeting and are normally produced by a State Department official. The Trump-Lavrov memcon is probably stored away in a computer file at Foggy Bottom bearing the subject "Memcons" and will likely be classified "confidential"—the lowest security classification. The reason is that such meetings rarely are used to discuss highly classified information.

I know this because one of the biggest scoops of my journalism career came from just such a document 21 years ago.

Two weeks after then-President Bill Clinton met in Sharm el Shaykh Egypt with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, a confidential memcon of the meeting was sent by cable to the U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

I was able to get a copy of it. For news reporters, documents are like gold because, unless they're forgeries, they have much greater credibility than secondhand anonymous sources. (The sources in the original Post story on Trump's White House meeting were anonymous.) Several other news outlets, including the once-esteemed New York Times, were quick to follow the Post story. Don't expect corrections.

My story on the Clinton-Yeltsin meeting ran in a six-column story across page one of The Washington Times on March 27, 1996, under the headline, "Clinton Vows Help For Yeltsin Campaign." The subhed was: "Arkansas' interest in poultry dispute discussed at anti-terrorism summit."

The summit would later be dubbed the Chicken Summit since it exposed the Bill Clinton style of leadership—going to bat for his political donors and other vested interests in his home state of Arkansas.

During the March 13 meeting with Yeltsin, Clinton began by telling Yeltsin that since they were both running for president the United States would implement "positive" policies toward Russia to boost Yeltsin's election bid.

In exchange for American support, President Clinton wanted Yeltsin to clear up "negative" issues—like a poultry dispute involving Moscow blocking imports of U.S. chicken.

"This is a big issue, especially since about 40 percent of U.S. poultry is produced in Arkansas," the memcon said. "An effort should be made to keep such things from getting out of hand."

The White House spokesman at the time, Mike McCurry, didn't deny the exchange, but lamented that the president ought to be allowed to have a private conversation without it showing up on the front page of a newspaper.

Clinton said his secretary of state, Warren Christopher, would discuss U.S. backing for Yeltsin with the Russian foreign minister, longtime KGB man Yevgeni Primakov.

"The main thing," Clinton said, "is that the two sides not do anything that would harm the other. Things could come up between now and the elections in Russia or the United States which could cause conflicts."

Earlier that month, Clinton had ordered his staff to fix the Russian ban on poultry as soon as possible. One of Clinton's major political contributors was Don Tyson, owner of Tyson Foods, Inc. and a major chicken producer.

The Times scoop is not online, but I've reproduced it below the fold.

Clinton vows help for Yeltsin campaign
Arkansas' interest in poultry dispute discussed at anti-terrorism summit

By Bill Gertz
The Washington Times
March 27, 1996

President Clinton, in a private meeting at the recent anti-terrorism summit, promised Boris Yeltsin he would back the Russian president's re-election bid with "positive" U.S. policies toward Russia.

In exchange, Mr. Clinton asked for Mr. Yeltsin's help in clearing up "negative" issues such as the poultry dispute between the two countries, according to a classified State Department record of the meeting obtained by The Washington Times.

Mr. Clinton told Mr. Yeltsin that "this is a big issue, especially since about 40 percent of U.S. poultry is produced in Arkansas. An effort should be made to keep such things from getting out of hand," the memo said.

White House and State Department spokesmen confirmed the authenticity of the memo but declined to comment on what they acknowledged was an extremely sensitive exchange between the two leaders.

The memorandum on the March 13 talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, does not quote the two presidents directly but paraphrases in detail their conversation.

According to the classified memorandum, Mr. Yeltsin said "a leader of international stature such as President Clinton should support Russia and that meant supporting Yeltsin. Thought should be given to how to do that wisely."

The president replied that Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov "would talk about that" at a meeting in Moscow. The meeting ended last week.

Mr. Clinton told Mr. Yeltsin "there was not much time" before the Russian elections and "he wanted to make sure that everything the United States did would have a positive impact, and nothing should have a negative impact," the memo said.

"The main thing is that the two sides not do anything that would harm the other," Mr. Clinton said to Mr. Yeltsin. "Things could come up between now and the elections in Russia or the United States which could cause conflicts."

The memorandum, contained in a cable sent Friday by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, was marked "confidential" and was intended for the "eyes only" of Thomas Pickering, U.S. ambassador to Russia, and James F. Collins, the State Department's senior diplomat for the former Soviet Union.

The memo said Mr. Clinton suggested that the chicken dispute and others like it could be made part of talks beteen Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin.

Mr. Gore announced Monday that Russia has lifted the ban on U.S. chicken imports that had been imposed out of concern that the chicken was tainted with bacteria.

The Washington Times reported March 8 that Mr. Clinton intervened personally in the poultry dispute late last month.

The president's directives to his staff to solve the problem right away benefited powerful Arkansas poultry concerns. Among them is the nation's leading producer, Tyson Foods Inc., whose owner, Don Tyson, has long been a major contributor to Mr. Clinton's campaigns.

U.S. poultry exports make up one-third of all U.S. exports to Russia and are expected to total $700 million this year.

Asked about the memo on the Clinton-Yeltsin meeting, White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry said yesterday that it is "inaccurate" to say Mr. Clinton promised to orient U.S. policy toward helping the Russian leader's political fortunes. Rather, he said, the president wanted to make sure that issues in the two countries do not hamper good relations. The poultry issue was raised in that context only, the press secretary said.

Mr. McCurry, who said he was present at the meeting, also said the president was referring to "positive relations" between the two countries and not political campaigns.

Those present at the meeting included Mr. Christopher, CIA Director John Deutch, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and, besides Mr. Yeltsin, four Russian officials, including Mr. Primakov and Mikhail Barsukov, director of the Federal Security Service.

During the discussion, Mr. Yeltsin outlined his political strategy for winning the June presidential elections and said he still had doubts about running as late as last month.

"But after he saw the Communist platform, he decided to run," the memo said. "The Communists would destroy reform, do away with privatization, nationalize production, confiscate land and homes. They would even execute people. This was in their blood."

Mr. Yeltsin said he will begin his campaign early next month, traveling throughout Russia for two months to "get his message to every apartment, house and person" about his plan to strengthen democracy and reforms.

"The aim of Yeltsin and his supporters would be to convince the candidates one by one to withdraw from the race and to throw their support behind Yeltsin," the memo said.

Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is "the one candidate who would not do this" because he is "a die-hard communist," and Mr. Yeltsin noted that he "would need to do battle with him."

Mr. Yeltsin dismissed former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as "not a serious candidate."

"He had awoken one morning and decided to run and would wake up another morning and decide to withdraw his candidacy," Mr. Yeltsin said of his predecessor. "This would be better for him because he now had some standing and if he participated in the elections, he would lose any reputation he had left."