Starting with the very first time they met—assuming it really was the first time they met—Donald Trump has visited with Vladimir Putin with no one else present. That very first meeting didn’t even include an American translator. And, as the Washington Post reports, even when subsequent meetings have had an American translator present, Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths, including physically taking away that translator’s notes, to ensure that what he says to Putin stays with Putin.
That secrecy isn’t just for the public: it extends to officials in Trump’s White House. He hasn’t shared the detailed contents of these meetings with the State Department. Or with the Pentagon. The American translator’s notes themselves have few details about the contents of the conversation, and what they do hold now rests with Trump. The truth is no one except Donald Trump really knows what he has discussed with Vladimir Putin.
At least … in America. Because, as the Post report shows, Russian translators were “trained to take nearly verbatim stenographic notes.” It’s unclear how widely circulated those notes have been inside the Kremlin, but it’s safe to say that Moscow has much better records of the Trump–Putin relationship than any agency in Washington, D.C.
Russia has no formal system of declassification and no formal rules about record retention. There is no Russian equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. All of this makes it unlikely that those detailed notes are going to pop up in the public record any time soon—unless Putin sees some political advantage in making them appear. And, of course, even if Russia did release something that they claim are the authentic notes from those meetings, there would be no way to be sure, since there’s no check on the U.S. side.
All of this goes a long way to making it clear why many in Congress are so intent on hearing from the one person, other than Trump, who might be able to provide some clarity on these meetings: the American translator.
Forcing a translator to testify, even behind closed doors, seems like an uncomfortable intrusion. After all, there are legitimate reasons why Trump might need to have discretion in a conversation with Putin, especially if the two were talking about something like an agreement of forces in Syria, or the renewal of SALT talks. Making the translator testify is uncomfortable, both for the translator and for the precedent it sets. However, with no other source of information, it is absolutely vital that the translator provide what information is still available. It’s an ugly necessity generated by Trump’s actions.