Americans still deserve to know what Trump said to Putin

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Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Nothing that happened during today's meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to make the same kind of splash as the 2018 Helsinki summit between Putin and then-President Donald Trump. That was the meetup where Trump so memorably rolled over and showed his belly to the Russian leader, siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump said to reporters. It was a stunning moment, and a number of leading Republicans even harshly criticized Trump — but then went on with business as usual.

Democrats in Congress spent several years trying to find out more about the substance of Trump and Putin's private conversations, and Trump himself reportedly went to extraordinary lengths to hide that information. "What I say to him is none of your business," he said in 2019.

Now it appears that Trump has won the fight. ABC News reports that Democrats are no longer seeking records of the meetings between Trump and Putin. "The Biden administration is looking forward, not back," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) told the network.

That "looking forward" formulation is familiar to progressives, who remember when President Obama used it to explain why his administration would not investigate the Bush administration's use of illegal torture against terrorism suspects. Given a choice between progress and accountability, Obama chose progress. But it didn't really work out that way. Instead, Republicans were arguably emboldened to step further over the lines of legality the next time they held power. Where there is no accountability — and no consequences for wrongdoing — there is only impunity.

We don't know for sure that Trump did anything wrong during his chats with Putin. But those conversations — conducted while representing the American people — are most assuredly our business. Too bad we may never know what was said. Amnesia is our official policy, and also the result of dangerous head trauma. In both cases, it's a sign that the afflicted body is deeply unwell.

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