It would be unfortunate if Congress had to break political norms to subpoena Marina Gross, the interpreter who was the only other American present last year during a two-hour conversation in Finland with President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But a subpoena may be necessary to clear up lingering questions created by Trump’s own odd behavior, and under these circumstances Congress shouldn’t be reluctant to ask a translator to violate the usual standard of confidentiality.
Trump has gone out of his way to conceal the content of his conversations with the Russian leader, including his talk in Helsinki last year translated by Gross. At another meeting, in Germany, he ordered a different translator to hand over notes, ensuring there would be no paper trail. His actions have kept even senior government officials in his administration in the dark about what he’s discussed during his sit-downs with Putin. Those would be odd moves for any president confering with any foreign leader. Usually, presidents have a phalanx of note-takers and translators at their side in summit meetings.
The broader context, though, makes Trump’s actions in this case downright alarming: This is a president who was subject to a counterintelligence inquiry launched because of the FBI’s suspicion that he was knowingly or unknowingly working for Russia. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is investigating whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had help from Russian intelligence, and whether the campaign actively colluded with Moscow.
None of those possibilities are nearly as far-fetched as they should be. Based on Trump’s own statements and behavior, the concern about his Russian connections is reasonable. As outlandish as it may be to say this about a US president, it’s becoming increasingly consistent with the facts to conclude that Trump might be under some form of Russian influence.
“I don’t know whether or not the commander in chief is a Russian asset, but it’s frightening that we even have to ask that question,” US Representative Seth Moulton told the Globe editorial board on Monday. “We have a fundamental responsibility to our national security to investigate and get to the bottom of exactly what is going on.”
Moulton said he would support a subpoena to gather more information from Trump’s translator, echoing other Democrats including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who has wanted Gross’s notes or testimony.
In normal times, translators shouldn’t face Congressional subpoenas — they are staffers, not policy makers, and shouldn’t have to fear members of Congress looking over their shoulder. But we’re clearly not living in normal times. Unless doing so would hamper Mueller’s investigation, the House should demand the translators — Gross and the unnamed translator present at the 2017 meeting in Germany — provide their notes or testify.
Though the Trump administration might fight a subpoena by claiming executive privilege, the administration should instead view a demand from Congress as an opportunity to exonerate the president. If the testimony shows that, in Helsinki, he was conducting the business of American diplomacy in a responsible fashion, then it’ll bolster Trump’s defenders.
But if that’s not what the interpreters heard — well, in that case, Americans have an urgent right to know what they did hear.