On the eve of the upcoming G20 summit in Japan, two non-profit government watchdog organizations dropped a lawsuit today on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over his failure to prevent President Trump from violating the Federal Records Act when the president confiscated the translator’s notes from a 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at that year’s summit in Hamburg.
The suit — filed by American Oversight and Democracy Forward — also cites Pompeo’s negligence in preserving records of other one-on-one meetings between the two world leaders, despite the Federal Records Act requirement that Pompeo secure the meeting notes prepared by State Department employees
“’President Trump has taken unusual, and in some cases extreme, measures to conceal the details of these meetings, not only from the public at large, but also from key members of his administration,’ the filing says. As a result, there is a ‘total absence’ of a detailed record of Trump’s five in-person interactions with Putin over the last two years, even in classified files,” according to a description of the suit in Time Magazine.
The progressive watchdogs decided to take action before the next G-20 summit takes place — even though no formal meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin is currently scheduled — to prevent a repeat of any undocumented interactions in the informal discussions that the two men may have during that time.
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“On the eve of another meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, Secretary Pompeo’s actions ensure that our relationship with Russia remains shrouded in secrecy, with the American government left in the dark,” said Anne Harkavy, the executive director of Democracy Forward.
The Washington Post first disclosed the fact that President Trump went to “extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations” with Putin — “taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials,” according to the newspaper.
The lack of documentation of the two-hour encounter put career State Department staffers in a difficult position after they had to struggle to discover what had been discussed when their Russian counterparts began announcing agreements that had supposedly been reached in the meeting.
“We aren’t talking about old outtakes from ‘The Apprentice,’” American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers said to Time Magazine. “This may be the only written record of a meeting between two heads of state, and the interpreter’s notes can’t be seized or destroyed just because President Trump might want them hidden.”
Foreign policy experts agree that such a situation is unprecedented in modern times and will create problems for future administrations.
“It’s really surprising how far this has gone,” Douglas Cox, a law professor who specializes in government records law at the City University of New York, told Time. “When you’re talking about meetings at this level of importance that involve foreign policy and national security, the idea that they wouldn’t be fully documented and that in the future we won’t know what happened is remarkable and disturbing.”
It’s unclear just how effective the two watchdog organizations’ legal efforts will be since the laws governing federal records have few options for enforcing the regulations that they specify and have previously been interpreted very narrowly. Moreover, the likelihood of Attorney General William Barr prosecuting the president for seizing his translator’s notes is completely non-existent.
Still, transparency advocates hope that the suit will consider the seriousness of the problem as they hear the case.
“In the vacuum created by the limitations on Congress’s ability to take action and in view of the Attorney General’s unwillingness to fulfill his responsibility, one would hope that the courts might recognize the need to step in and be more aggressive in enforcing these laws,” Cox explained.
If the watchdogs’ lawsuit is unsuccessful, however, the only remedy left would be if Democrats in the House of Representatives subpoenaed the president’s translator to get their account of what took place in the meetings.
That action would likely be met with a claim of executive privilege from the Trump administration and be caught up in a lengthy court battle — which is probably why House Democrats have yet to take that step while faced with a multiplicity of other disclosure battles with the White House over the more pressing concerns raised in the Mueller report.
All of this makes one practically hope that the NSA has its electronic surveillance sensors spread throughout the G20 meeting locations and can monitor any conversations that Trump may have for posterity — or for any future lawsuits or impeachment proceedings for which they may be necessary.
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Original reporting by Vera Bergengruen at Time Magazine.