President Donald Trump is claiming that no American president has been as “tough” on Russia as he has been, amid ongoing criticism of his Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (July 18)
WASHINGTON â€“ U.S. lawmakersÂ eager to learn what went on in the private meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are demanding answers from the only other American in the room: Trumpâ€™s interpreter.
But forcing an interpreter to publicly disclose the details of a confidential conversation between world leaders would be unprecedented and perilous, experts say.
â€œIt has never happened in American history,â€ said Harry Obst, who served as an interpreter for seven presidents. â€œAnd if it hasnâ€™t happened in over 200 years, there must be a good reason for it.â€
A growing number of Democrats are asking that interpreter Marina Gross be hauled before a congressional committee to reveal what she heard during the one-on-one meeting between the two world leaders. They also are demanding that Gross turn over any notes that she took during Mondayâ€™s secret, two-hour meeting in Helsinki.
â€œIt may be unprecedented to subpoena a translator to reveal details of a private meeting between the president and another world leader, but Trumpâ€™s actions are unprecedented in a way that harms our national security,â€ Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., wrote Tuesday in a letter to the top lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
The American public deserves to know if Trump made any concessions, revealed national security secrets or tried to profit off the presidency, Pascrell said.
â€œThe only way to answer this question,â€ he said, â€œis by compelling the American translator to testify publicly.â€
Much like a doctor or a priest, interpreters and translators are bound by a code of ethics dictating that any privileged or confidential information entrusted to them in the course of the work remain confidential, said Stephanie van Reigersberg, who worked as a State Department interpreter for 32 years before retiring in 2005.
â€œWhat happens in a meeting is not up to you to divulge,â€ she said.
Gross is an experienced, respected interpreter who works for the State Departmentâ€™s Office of Language Services, which provides interpreters for the White House. She first came to the department as a contractor but was eventually placed on staff and has served as an interpreter for a number of public officials.
White House file photos show a smiling Gross standing alongside Laura Bush during the then-first ladyâ€™s visit with members of the Russian Paralympic Team in Sochi, Russia, in 2008. Another photo from last year shows her seated by then-secretary of State Rex Tillerson during the opening remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ahead of a bilateral meeting in Moscow.
In Helsinki, Gross was at Trumpâ€™s side during his private meeting with Putin, who also had his own interpreter in the room.
Trumpâ€™s remarks at a post-summit press conference with Putin touched off a political firestorm among Democrats and Republicans who were dismayed by his friendly demeanor toward the Russian leader and his failure to confront Putin about Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats also are demanding that the administration provide more information about any promises that Trump may have made to Putin during their private meeting. With the administration providing few details, many lawmakers are looking to Gross to fill in the blanks and outline what she heard.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., called for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to convene a hearing with Gross â€œto determine what was specifically discussed and agreed to on the United Statesâ€™ behalf.â€
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, made a motion during a meeting Thursday for the panel to subpoena Gross â€“ â€œan extraordinary remedy,â€ he conceded, but one he said is necessitated by the presidentâ€™s actions. Republicans on the committee blocked his motion.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told reporters that he doesnâ€™t support Democratsâ€™ efforts to subpoena Gross but that he does back their push to see her notes. Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he is trying to determine whether that would be appropriate and whether it could potentially have other consequences.
â€œIn the future, would any notes even be allowed to be taken if we started doing this kind of thing?” he asked.
Not only would compelling an interpreter to disclose confidential information be damaging, it could jeopardize the interpreterâ€™s ability to do her job, said Judy Jenner, a spokeswoman for the American Translators Association.
â€œPeople need to be able to trust that what we hear as an interpreter is confidential,â€ Jenner said. â€œOtherwise, we lose the credibility to do our job.â€
Many Americans donâ€™t fully grasp the extent of an interpreterâ€™s role, said Obst, who for 14 years served as the director of the Office of Language Services.
For starters, thereâ€™s a difference between an interpreter and a translator. An interpreter deals with the spoken language, while a translator handles written text.
At times, an interpreter is the only other member of the U.S. delegation in the room with a president during high-level meetings and ends up acting as a de facto adviser. Before such meetings, the White House, the State Department or other agencies provide the interpreter with a package of briefing papers on the topics to be discussed.
The briefing documents can run up to 200 pages, Obst said, â€œbut the interpreter reads everything up to the last page and even makes notes.â€ In some cases, he said, the interpreter may know the subject matter better than the president and is often called on to answer detailed questions.
â€œI think the interpreters should be left alone,â€ Obst said of the lawmakersâ€™ efforts to target Gross. â€œThey have a hard enough and difficult enough work to do, and they have to carry all of the secrets with them to the end of their life practically. To try and pry something out of an interpreter, itâ€™s just not done.â€
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Congress members who are pushing to see Grossâ€™s notes are likely to be disappointed if they expect them to be revealing, said van Reigersberg, who was in charge of the interpreting branch of the Office of Language Services for 18 years.
An interpreterâ€™s notes are not a verbatim record of what was said during a meeting. Their purpose is simply to serve as a memory aid for the interpreter, and they often consist of a bunch of squiggly lines, arrows and symbols that would be indecipherable to anyone else, van Reigersberg said.
One time, when van Reigersberg was serving as an interpreter for Ronald Reagan, the president asked to see her notes. Reagan took one look at her scribbling, laughed out loudÂ and then held the notes up for everybody else in the room to see.
â€œHe thought they were hilarious because they made absolutely no sense to anyone else but me,â€ she said.
Itâ€™s regrettable that Gross has been caught in the political fallout from the Helsinki summit, van Reigersberg said.
â€œI feel very sorry for Marina being put through this,â€ she said. â€œShe obviously did the best with what was a very difficult situation.â€
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