Fmr. State Dept Head Interpreter Exposes Flaws in Administration’s Justification for Failing to Preserve Record of Infamous Hamburg Meeting

New Court Filing Raises Nixon-Era Comparison

Washington, D.C. — Today, Democracy Forward and American Oversight pushed back against the Trump administration’s continued unlawful effort to keep hidden the contents of President Trump’s 2017 Hamburg meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In support of the groups’ ongoing litigation, Harry Obst — a distinguished 30-year State Department veteran and former Director of the Department’s Office of Language Services — provided a declaration detailing the contents of interpreter notes for meetings between high-level officials like the Hamburg meeting and explaining the critical importance of those notes for maintaining a historical record and carrying out U.S. diplomatic duties. As today’s filing shows, the State Department still has failed to provide any direct evidence of the content or whereabouts of the interpreter notes.

“Try as he might, Secretary Pompeo cannot provide a legal justification for refusing to recover and preserve the only written record we know of that describes President Trump’s first private meeting with Vladimir Putin,” said Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Nitin Shah. “While Secretary Pompeo digs in on his decision to allow President Trump’s unlawful seizure of agency records to go unchecked, we’ll continue to hold him and the Trump administration accountable.”

The Federal Records Act requires Secretary Pompeo and the National Archivist to preserve and recover agency records and to refer illegal conduct to the Department of Justice. The administration has not disputed that President Trump seized the State Dept. interpreter’s notes at the conclusion of the Hamburg meeting.

“Secretary Pompeo has gone to every length to conceal the only written record of the first meeting between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “The government’s declaration underscores just how likely it is that these notes contain information the public has a right to. Given the president’s willingness to wield his foreign policy powers for personal gain, Secretary Pompeo has a duty to the American people to locate and release any evidence that the president behaved like a regular and responsible head of state.”

In a new submission to the Court, Mr. Obst explains that interpreter notes created during meetings between heads of state are the basis for preparing a “Memorandum of Conversation,” the official State Department record of the conversation. As such, interpreter notes like those at issue here are “treat[ed] . . . with the same level of care and sensitivity as a classified document.”

Further detailing the concern surrounding President Trump’s seizure of the Hamburg notes, Mr. Obst recalls an instance during the Nixon administration where a senior White House official sought to conceal interpreter records of a meeting between Henry Kissinger and a representative of the German Chancellor. Mr. Obst did not acquiesce to this effort.

Former White House officials have said that the Trump-Putin Hamburg meeting is critical to understanding why President Trump adopted the Russia-driven conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to defeat him. Purportedly because of that belief, President Trump later demanded that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announce an official investigation into the discredited Ukrainian interference theory before the Trump administration would release congressionally-appropriated military assistance to Ukraine — conduct that became the focus of President Trump’s subsequent impeachment.


Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

American Oversight is a non-partisan, nonprofit ethics watchdog and the top Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration. American Oversight has filed more than 100 public records lawsuits since March 2017, uncovering and publishing tens of thousands of documents exposing conflicts of interest, abuse of power, and misuse of taxpayer resources at the highest levels of the government.

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