Six months ago, this amounted to nothing more than an academic exercise. With a new House majority, Democrats appear ready to make it into a big legal fight with the White House. ABC News reports that lawyers for two House committees will meet today to discuss whether they can subpoena Marina Gross, the Russian interpreter for President Donald Trump, in an effort to hear the details of their conversation in Helsinki:
Lawyers for the two committees are planning to meet Monday to evaluate their legal options for subpoenaing both Gross and another interpreter, who was present during a meeting in Hamburg, Germany, between Trump and Putin that occurred without aides present.
When Democrats took control of the House earlier this month, some members voiced concerns that interviewing interpreters would be a significant break in protocol. They argued the precedent could be problematic for future administrations by making it more difficult to conduct face-to-face diplomacy. They also raised concerns they could face objections from White House lawyers, who could mount a legal argument that the president’s executive privilege extends to the interpreter.
But a senior Democratic aide on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said a new report in The Washington Post has “changed the calculus.” It describes the president going to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Putin, including moves Trump allegedly took to seize notes from the interpreter at a meeting he held with Putin in Hamburg.
“This raises a new host of questions,” the aide said. “We’re looking into the legal implications of that and we’ll discuss our options. Our lawyers are sitting down with intel committee lawyers to hash it out.”
The Post reported that Trump went so far as to take possession of Gross’ handwritten notes from the Helsinki meeting and others. Their report yesterday called such actions unprecedented, although they did note that other senior administration officials have been present for other conversations with Putin:
President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
Trump did so after a meeting with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg that was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. U.S. officials learned of Trump’s actions when a White House adviser and a senior State Department official sought information from the interpreter beyond a readout shared by Tillerson.
The constraints that Trump imposed are part of a broader pattern by the president of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States’ main adversaries.
As a result, U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.
It’s also rather unprecedented to have a president under investigation with a working hypothesis that he’s a Russian agent, too. Under those circumstances, any president might decide to get a little stingy with the notes and the details of those conversations.
At any rate, this doesn’t look like an area ripe for House subpoenas. The Constitution gives the executive branch the responsibility for foreign relations, not Congress. The Senate has the jurisdiction to ratify treaties, but the House is notably absent from the discussion except for the joint congressional jurisdiction in foreign commerce. Even if Trump and Putin discussed foreign commerce, however, the House doesn’t have jurisdiction over conversations — they only have jurisdiction over agreements thereof.
On top of that, no one has any evidence that Trump did anything wrong, other than the common assumption made by Trump’s political opposition that he does everything wrong. There is no probable cause to intervene — which makes this a fishing expedition. Its value has to get weighed against the damage done to the executive branch and its ability to have sensitive and private conversations with other world leaders. Simply put, there is no value to this infringement on executive privilege at the zenith of presidential authority, which means that the House should get slapped down by the federal courts, assuming it goes that far.