Democratic lawmakers are discussing how to make the interpreters in President Donald Trump's meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin appear before them to learn what transpired amid reports the President has worked to keep the content of his huddles with Putin a secret.
House Democrats are acting following a stunning Washington Post report that Trump has taken pains to keep even his own administration officials in the dark about his talks with Putin, taking away his interpreter's notes on at least one occasion and demanding that no information about the talks be shared with US officials.
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CNN has confirmed that after a 2017 meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, Trump took the interpreter's notes and told him not to share anything about the discussion with anyone else, according to a former State Department official who was in Hamburg when the meeting took place. Senior White House and State officials who work on Russian issues asked for notes on the meeting and did not get them, the source said.
Another former State Department official said that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not provide a readout of the meeting to US ambassadors in the region. The source said that "Tillerson played stuff pretty close to his chest" with all meetings and this one was no different.
The unusual level of secrecy from the President, which aides have attributed to his desire to avoid leaks, stands apart from his behavior with other world leaders. The reports come on the heels of a New York Times article that the FBI began investigating whether Trump was working on behalf of Russian interests after his May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was then leading the probe into Russia interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
That probe, now led by special counsel Robert Mueller, has resulted in criminal charges against 36 people and entities and guilty pleas from seven people. Four of those people, including two Trump associates, were sentenced to prison and the rest are awaiting sentencing. Questions about the ties between Trump, members of his campaign and Russia are coming under more intense scrutiny as Democrats now control the House.
And Democrats have set their sights on the President's interpreters.
'The bottom of this'
Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN his panel will work with the House Intelligence Committee to get the interpreter's notes. "We're going to try to get to the bottom of this," Engel said on "At This Hour" with Kate Bolduan, adding that "no decisions have been made on subpoenas."
As part of that effort, Engel's committee and the House intelligence panel were meeting Monday to discuss how to subpoena the interpreter's records from a Trump-Putin meeting in July in Helsinki, Finland. The leaders met for close to two hours with only interpreters present. Little is known about their discussions and few, if any, administration officials were briefed on the details.
One of the former State Department officials told CNN that Trump's meetings with other European leaders were "totally different" in terms of protocol. "Standard procedure was the standard procedure," the source said, citing Trump's first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March 2017. The US chargé d'affaires from the embassy in Berlin came to the meeting in Washington and notes from the meeting were shared through regular channels.
Two Democratic aides told CNN there is some hesitation about pursuing this course. There are concerns about crimping future diplomatic conversations if leaders think they can't speak freely because their interpreters' notes could be made public. And interpreters may be legally protected from having to testify.
If House Democrats move forward with a subpoena, Senate Democrats would like to support the effort, the aides said, but it is not yet clear exactly how they would do that.
The Washington Post report said US officials have no detailed record, even in classified form, of five meetings Trump has had with Putin over two years, despite the fact that US intelligence agencies believe Moscow wanted Trump to win the election and conducted an unprecedented level of campaign interference to support that outcome.
It's unclear how many conversations Trump and Putin have had by phone, as the White House stopped reading out the President's calls with foreign leaders almost a year ago.
"We all know that the Russians interfered in our 2016 election," Engel told CNN. "We know they interfered to try to help Donald Trump win. And since that time, there have been meetings between Putin and Trump and we don't know what went on ... You just scratch your head and say, 'What is it? Why is it that the President of the United States seems to go against our allies like the UK or Germany or France and cozy up to Putin?' It makes no sense whatsoever."
Regardless, Engel promised in a statement that his committee "will be holding hearings on the mysteries swirling around Trump's bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies, and how those dark dealings affect our national security."
'These people make it up'
Translators aren't meant to be pulled into the public fray. They are not confirmed officials or policy makers, and they don't serve the same function as a transcriber or official note taker, the aide who sits alongside a president, secretary of state or other Cabinet official and records what happened, what promises and requests were made.
Nevertheless, Engel's counterpart on the intelligence panel, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, indicated in a tweet that Democrats would be trying again to have Trump's interpreters testify and that they'd put public pressure on Republicans to support the move.
"Last year, we sought to obtain the interpreter's notes or testimony, from the private meeting between Trump and Putin," Schiff tweeted, referring to the July summit in Helsinki. "The Republicans on our committee voted us down. Will they join us now? Shouldn't we find out whether our president is really putting America first?' "
On Monday, Schiff told CNN that "If the Washington Post report is accurate -- and the only written memorialization of what happened in that meeting is in Russian hands because the American copy ... has been destroyed, that's a pretty terrible risk we are running not knowing what happened in a private meeting. We are looking at our remedies but we haven't made a decision yet. Chairman Engel and I are conferring. "
On Saturday, Trump dismissed the Washington Post report.
"I'm not keeping anything under wraps," he told Fox News. "I couldn't care less. I mean, it's so ridiculous. These people make it up."
Trump's appearance with Putin in Helsinki met scathing bipartisan criticism after he sided with the Russian leader over US intelligence services' findings that Russia had interefered in the 2016 election. Afterward, he went on to contradict his director of national intelligence and his cyber agencies -- claiming that Russia is no longer targeting the US with cyberattacks -- made comments that undercut NATO and echoed Russia's outlook on other issues.
That performance led lawmakers to call for Marina Gross, the State Department interpreter who shepherded Trump through the Helsinki meeting, to appear before Congress. According to the Post, Trump has used more than one interpreter for his various meetings with Putin.
Gross, a State Department employee with years of experience translating at the highest levels, is known within the department as a longtime, respected civil servant. She has been photographed alongside former first lady Laura Bush. Gross also sat alongside Tillerson during his April 2017 visit to Moscow.
Gross might have notes of her meeting, but they would be meant to help her translate simultaneously and not to maintain a record of Trump's exchanges with Putin, according to other interpreters. It is highly unusual for lawmakers to consider asking a translator to appear, let alone one who has been working with a president.
'We may have no choice'
There's also the question of whether what the translator heard is covered by executive privilege, which allows the president to fight requests by Congress or the courts for information.
Engel acknowledged the question of executive privilege, telling CNN that "I would like, in a perfect world, not to look at what an interpreter wrote. I would prefer not to do that. We have to see what we can find out. If I had a choice, I would rather not do that with the interpreter."
But he added, "We may have no choice."
Gamal Helal, an Arabic interpreter and senior adviser to four presidents and seven secretaries of state, told CNN in July that, at least in his memory, there is no precedent for Congress to order a translator to appear.
There have been several instances where translators have been subpoenaed in legal cases, he said, and the State Department, which provides translation services for the entire government, and Justice Department have protected them from testifying. Often it is a condition of them taking the job, Helal said.
"It would be a horrible precedent if a president wasn't free to talk one-on-one with a head of state," Helal said.
"The principal uses the interpreter to communicate," Helal told CNN. "Therefore the interpreter is an extension of the principal. If you want to know what the principal says, in this case the President, you have to ask him."