Can Congress subpoena Trump's interpreter?

At first, it was mostly just Chuck Schumer calling for hearings over what happened at the Trump – Putin summit. As Allahpundit noted last night, unless there are a lot of Republicans willing to go along with the idea (including key committee leaders) that’s not likely to happen. But now some additional Democrats are jumping on the dogpile and getting more specific than simply calling for “hearings.” Joe Kennedy and Jeanne Shaheen want to know what was discussed during the private, two-hour conversation between Presidents Trump and Putin. But if neither of the leaders are choosing to divulge that information, how do they plan to get it? By issuing a subpoena for Trump’s interpreter. (Washington Times)

At least two Congressional Democrats want President Trump’s interpreter to testify about his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So curious are Democrats to learn what was said in Monday’s private meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin — there were no other officials in the room; only each man’s translator — that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Joe Kennedy III have each made the unusual request.

“I’m calling for a hearing with the U.S. interpreter who was present during President Trump’s meeting with Putin to uncover what they discussed privately. This interpreter can help determine what @POTUS shared/promised Putin on our behalf,” Ms. Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

This idea should immediately set off some alarm bells for anyone following the story. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about asking the President what he said or even issuing a subpoena for his aides who may have been in on the plans for the meeting. The interpreter is not part of the administration in any fashion. She’s a person who is literally acting as a tool, performing a function which can be (and while crudely, sometimes actually is) done by a computer application. She has no input on what is discussed and is hardly an expert on what may or may not be appropriate in such a negotiation.

To get to the title question, can they do that? I’ve been doing some checking and the short answer seems to be yes. Criminal courts of law have actually been ordering testimony from interpreters increasingly in recent years, but this creates a serious dilemma for the interpreter. Offering such testimony is a violation of one of the profession’s fundamental guidelines, known as the tenet of confidentiality. These situations are of such concern that MasterWord, an industry organization representing language professionals, has issued guidance on how to respond to subpoenas.

The bottom line is that compliance with the law and lawful orders of the courts overrides the professional requirement to adhere to the tenet of confidentiality, but the interpreters put themselves at risk of losing future work. They are advised to let their employers know when a subpoena is received to allow them the opportunity to respond or object if appropriate.

But those are criminal court cases. Refusing to cooperate could be seen as obstruction of justice. What about a congressional subpoena? There’s no formal finding that any law has been broken so the testimony isn’t going to be used for purposes of prosecution. This simply falls under the category of oversight, which is a nicer way of saying that some of the members of Congress are being nosy about what was said during a private conversation. Is the interpreter still bound to comply? A refusal could result in a contempt of Congress charge I suppose, but would they really toss the interpreter in jail for refusing to violate their professional code of conduct?

As mentioned above, this remains hypothetical for now. I don’t know if the GOP majority is going to be in the mood to cross swords with President Trump at that level. It could also be seen as the legislative branch usurping the power of the White House to handle foreign diplomatic relations. But if they do decide to go along with this scheme I certainly wouldn’t want to be that translator. She’s going to be in a very difficult position.

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