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Trump's Helsinki performance puts translator in the spotlight

The continuing furor over President Donald Trump's Helsinki press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin is...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 6:42 AM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 6:42 AM

The continuing furor over President Donald Trump's Helsinki press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin is focusing a spotlight on a figure meant to be invisible in high-stakes diplomacy: the translator.

Growing numbers of lawmakers are calling for Marina Gross, the State Department interpreter who shepherded Trump through his one-on-one meeting with Putin, to appear before Congress. Gross was the only other member of the US delegation in the room during the leaders' meeting, which lasted over 90 minutes.

Little is known about Gross, a State Department employee with years of experience translating at the highest levels. She has been photographed alongside former first lady Laura Bush. Gross also sat alongside former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his April 2017 visit to Moscow.

Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul lobbed some public praise Gross' way in a tweet noting that, apart from National Security Council senior director Fiona Hill, Gross was the only other woman in the room. "Our translator, who by the way, is absolutely fantastic!" McFaul tweeted on July 16.

No precedent

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday the department hasn't received a formal request for Gross to appear before any congressional committees yet. Another State Department official said Gross is a longtime and respected civil servant.

John Beyrle, another former US ambassador to Russia, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "I know the interpreter ... she's a professional."

Translators aren't meant to be pulled into the public fray. They are not confirmed officials or policymakers, and they don't serve the same function as a transcriber or official note takers, the aides who sit alongside a president, secretary of state, or other Cabinet official and record what happened, what promises were made and what requests were lodged.

Gross might have notes of her meeting, but they would have been used to help her translate simultaneously and not maintain a record of Trump's exchanges with Putin. It is highly unusual for lawmakers to ask a translator to appear, let alone one who has been working with a president.

Gamal Helal, an Arabic interpreter and senior adviser to four presidents and seven secretaries of state said that, at least in his memory, there is no precedent for Congress to order a translator to appear.

There have been several instances where translators have been subpoenaed in legal cases, he said, and the State Department - which provides translation services for the entire government - and the Justice Department have protected them from testifying. Often it is a condition of them taking the job, Helal said.

"It would be a horrible precedent if a president wasn't free to talk one-on-one with a head of state," Helal said. "He uses the translator to communicate because he cannot do so in a certain language. If he spoke in English, there would be no other way for Congress to know what he said, except to ask the president himself. Or Putin."

"The principal uses the interpreter to communicate," Helal told CNN. "Therefore the interpreter is an extension of the principal. If you want to know what the principal says, in this case the president, you have to ask him."

Helal says the interpreter can often be a note taker in a one-on-one situation as well, but only at the request of the principal.

"When we are interpreting, we take notes for ourselves - these are not verbatim notes, they are only a language we understand, so we can reconstruct the phrase or paragraph," Helal says.

"Sometimes you prepare the notes at the request of the president," Helal added. "Once you have the notes, you give them to the president and he does what he wants with it. It is not up to the interpreter to reveal what he says. Only the principal has the right and privilege to control the fate of those notes."

The White House said that Trump requested alone time with Putin to better assess him and develop a leader-to-leader relationship. Trump has previously expressed anger at leaks coming from his meetings with foreign leaders and told aides he didn't want sensitive information leaking from his meeting with Putin.

Trump also didn't want aides, who may take a harder line on Russia, undercutting or interrupting him in his conversation with Putin, officials told CNN.

Beyrle said that State Department translators "keep notes and keep a record" and that he was sure that by now Gross has been debriefed by national security adviser John Bolton and Hill or the NSC. "I'm sure we have a pretty good sense of what happened in that meeting," Beyrle said.

Lawmakers want to know what Trump and Putin discussed

But lawmakers don't have a sense of what happened.

Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who leads the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN that his committee was looking into calling Gross to testify, but acknowledged that it is tricky territory. Lawmakers are wrestling with the precedent of having a translator appear before Congress and whether it is appropriate to ask for her notes, Corker said.

There's also the question of whether what the translator heard is covered by executive privilege, which allows the President to fight requests by Congress or the courts for information.

"Look, all of us want to know what took place in this meeting," Corker said. "We're looking into precedent there. We want to make sure...are they are going to call executive privilege? These are notes taken by translators, you understand, in a meeting. I'm not sure it's even appropriate. We're checking that, if it is, certainly we'll pursue it."

"I can understand the request," Corker added.

The impetus to call Gross to testify began with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire. "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," Shaheen tweeted Tuesday.

Rep. Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who is also calling for Gross' testimony, told CNN that lawmakers can see that the issue is complicated. "The legal aspects of this are challenging," Kennedy said.

Referring to the President's claim that he believes US intelligence agencies over Putin when it comes to Russian meddling -- a claim Trump immediately undercut by suggesting "other people" might also be responsible -- Kennedy said, "This is a horrible thing to say, the President of the United States has no credibility when it comes to this issue."

"This is a serious national security issue and all that I'm asking for is that we understand what the President agreed to. And we should try to find a way to figure it out" Kennedy said.

But it's unclear if Republicans, who control the witness list for committees on Capitol Hill, would ask the interpreter to testify. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told CNN that he thinks "it's highly unlikely and, frankly, I'm not sure what that accomplishes. The translator is somebody who, one, is probably not versed in the policy and is going to be able to explain the nuances of what went on there."

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, wants access to the translator's notes, but says it should be done in a classified setting, not a public hearing.

"There are typically notes that are taken. I'm assuming that some of the information could only be given in a classified setting so I would think that before the relevant committees, I'm not saying it ought to be done in a public hearing, we at least ought to get access to the notes that the translators keep, " Flake said.

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