Only two other people heard what Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump said to each other on Monday: the interpreters who helped them say it.
Marina Gross, a State Department interpreter, was the only American in the room other than Trump during the private summit in Helsinki. A joint press conference that followed drew wide, bipartisan condemnation after Trump said he did not see any reason to believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, countering U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings. Trump walked the comments back Tuesday, saying he did believe Russia meddled in the election, but he has since issued conflicting statements on the issue.
In the chaotic fallout, lawmakers have escalated their calls to subpoena Gross, but interpreter groups have responded with alarm, saying that calling her to testify would threaten confidentiality, a cornerstone of their profession.
Why compel her to talk? Since the Helsinki meeting, the White House and Russian officials have given different accounts of Trump and Putin’s one-on-one conversation. Russian officials have claimed the meeting resulted in “verbal agreements,” but U.S. officials have not confirmed that.
Trump said on Twitter that the topics discussed included nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace and North Korea. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday the two leaders agreed to an “ongoing working level dialogue” and that the administration is considering inviting Putin to Washington this fall.
So lawmakers, scrambling for answers, have called on Gross to testify in front of Congress or share her notes from the meeting. A State Department spokesperson said Wednesday that it hasn’t received a formal request for Gross to testify.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., sent an open letter Tuesday to top members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asking the committee to subpoena Gross. “The American public deserves to know if the President made any further concessions, revealed national security secrets, or tried to profit off the presidency,” Pascrell wrote.
On Thursday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee blocked a motion by ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to do the same.
National and international interpreter groups have criticized the efforts, saying that forcing Gross to testify would violate a key tenet of the profession.
Interpreters take confidentiality “very seriously at all levels,” said Judy Jenner, a spokesperson for the American Translators Association (ATA), a leading industry group. “During the course of our work, we hear a lot of confidential information.”
The International Association of Conference Interpreters, an organization that represents 3,000 members, including diplomatic interpreters, states in its Code of Ethics that members are “bound by the strictest secrecy” when interpreting at private meetings. Both the group and the American Association of Language Specialists issued statements this week reiterating that position.
A code of confidentiality among interpreters ensures that people can speak candidly around them, which is important in a diplomatic setting, interpreters told the NewsHour.
“I think that it would be very hard for any statesman or diplomatic agent or agency to be able to trust an interpreter if they know that there is a precedent that whatever they hear [can] be shared,” said Edna Santizo, a member of the Leadership Council for the ATA’s Spanish Division.
Secrecy for interpreters is “a rock-solid tenet,” Barry Slaughter Olsen, an associate professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and professional interpreter, said. If that is broken, “it could significantly undermine the faith that people have in our profession,” he said.
Olsen also said that undermining that faith could further endanger interpreters working in conflict zones, where being perceived as untrustworthy can put their lives at risk.
David L. Phillips, the director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, said that despite interpreters’ concerns, knowing what happened at the Helsinki meeting is a matter of national security.
“The American people have a right to know what commitments President Trump has made on their behalf and the only way to learn the details about the meeting would be for the interpreter to present her notes,” Phillips said.
“Are there long-term implications? Sure, there are,” Phillips said. “There are also longer term implications to the president making security commitments without the knowledge of Congress.”
It’s unlikely that Democrats, who are in the minority in the House and Senate, can legally compel the interpreter to appear before Congress. But Phillips said that Gross still has the option to come forward on her own.
“That’ll be a choice that she has to make based on her conscience and her sense of responsibility to the truth,” he said.