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Judge's decision may shine light on secret Trump-Putin meeting notes

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G-20 summit on July 7, 2017, in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

WASHINGTON — A district court judge in Washington, D.C., has ordered administration lawyers to explain why, for more than two years, the White House has refused to turn over to the State Department an interpreter’s notes from a meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

That meeting took place in the summer of 2017, during a summit of the G-20 nations in Hamburg, Germany. The two men got along so well that the meeting, which was supposed to last an hour, ran to 137 minutes. In the room with Putin were Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, along with two interpreters — one American and the other Russian.

As the lengthy meeting concluded, Trump confiscated notes from the State Department interpreter, thus depriving American diplomats — and, according to an ongoing lawsuit, the American public — of the lone U.S. government record of what exactly was said.

After the meeting concluded, Tillerson told the press that the two leaders discussed Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, among other topics. But that hardly assuaged those who wondered about Trump’s unusually warm embrace of Putin. Without a written record of the meeting, suspicions about their relationship only increased.

On Wednesday, Judge Trevor McFadden rejected the administration’s argument that the notes were a presidential record outside the purview of the Federal Records Act, which describes how executive-branch agencies must preserve documents. McFadden is giving the government 90 days to further explain its position but seems disposed to eventually have the White House turn over the translator’s notes to the State Department, in keeping with the dictates of the Federal Records Act. 

While that would not mean those notes would be immediately made available to the public, it would potentially make those records subject to eventual release under the Freedom of Information Act, which is the ultimate goal of the current lawsuit. 

The ruling comes in the midst of an impeachment inquiry focused on Trump’s interactions with another Eastern European leader: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At the heart of that inquiry is a call between Trump and Zelensky on July 25, during which Trump asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Among other allegations related to that call, critics of the president have accused him of manipulating the transcript to downplay evidence of coercion. 

President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

In the case of the Hamburg meeting with Putin, the concern is over access to the lone American record of a significant encounter. Attorneys for the Trump administration argued that “when the president takes into his possession a document, it becomes a presidential record.” Those attorneys at the same time minimized the significance of the interpreter’s notes, describing them as “scribblings” that could not possibly shed light on the conversation between Putin and Trump.

The argument did not persuade McFadden, a Trump appointee who has been accused of showing favoritism to the president. On Wednesday, he seemed skeptical of the government’s arguments. “I’ve never seen a principal take notes from an interpreter,” McFadden said at one point, calling the whole matter “an odd occurrence.” He also said that documents do not become “presidential records simply because the president took them.”

The suit was brought by Democracy Forward and American Oversight, both of which are government watchdog organizations that have routinely opposed the Trump administration. And although Tillerson was secretary of state at the time of the Putin-Trump meeting, the suit names his successor, Mike Pompeo, as the defendant. The complaint charges Pompeo with “failure to take any action to recover unlawfully alienated State Department meeting notes” and by failing to adhere to the Federal Records Act. 

McFadden’s ruling was a rejection of the administration argument that the notes became a presidential record when Trump took them. That leaves virtually no room for administration attorneys to argue that they nevertheless belong to the president. They will have until early next year to file a new brief, but McFadden gave them little room to maneuver with his skepticism about what constituted a presidential record.

The State Department did not reply to a request for comment. A White House spokesman told Yahoo News that he would not discuss the matter until McFadden issued a final ruling. He is expected to do so early next year.

A White House spokesman also declined to comment on where the interpreter’s notes are now. 

Even if Trump were to claim them as a presidential record, he would still have to turn them over to a White House archivist, according to Bruce Montgomery, a presidential records expert at the University of Colorado. “He could not claim personal ownership of the notes given that they document the official public business of his administration,” Montgomery said. 

Democracy Forward saw the ruling as a victory. “President Trump clearly wishes to shield his interactions with foreign leaders even from those within his administration,” attorney Nitin Shah, who argued the case for Democracy Forward before McFadden, told Yahoo News in a statement. “But the law doesn’t allow Secretary Pompeo to turn a blind eye to those efforts. Today’s ruling is a win for government transparency and accountability.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the State Department on Tuesday. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Wednesday’s hearing highlighted the unprecedented nature of the entire Hamburg episode. Harry Obst, a translator for seven presidents, said Trump’s demand was highly unusual. “Nobody has ever tried to confiscate my notes,” Obst told Yahoo News. A native of a part of Germany now occupied by Russia, Obst eventually came to head the State Department’s translation office. He has also written a book on the subject of interpreting for presidents.

Obst said that a translator’s notes would be confiscated only by someone who was “ignorant of the whole process.” A translator’s notes, he explained, “are not written in words, mostly,” since translators use symbols and, further, have “highly trained memories” that obviate having to write out full words or sentences. 

Montgomery, the University of Colorado presidential records expert, offered a withering assessment of his own. “I think it’s absurd,” he said of the government’s case. He said that while the Presidential Records Act does give the president “a lot of discretion,” that discretion does not apply in this case.

“It doesn’t seem to me that he can just take a record from an executive agency,” Montgomery told Yahoo News.

Even though it is unclear whether the notes will shed any meaningful light on Trump’s relationship with Putin, the issue remains one of sustained public interest. 

On Tuesday, Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, met with Pompeo in Washington. In their joint press conference at State Department headquarters, Pompeo alluded to Russian electoral interference, while Lavrov for his part denied that such interference ever took place.

That same day, Trump received Lavrov in the Oval Office. Because members of the press were prohibited from attending the meeting, the precise contents of their conversation remain unknown.

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