Declaration Filed by Trump-Putin Meeting Interpreter Leaves Questions Unanswered on Whereabouts of Notes Seized by Trump
American Oversight and Democracy Forward’s New Filing Lays Bare Sec. Pompeo’s Lack of Defense for Violating Federal Recordkeeping Law
Washington, D.C. — American Oversight and Democracy Forward have advanced their ongoing lawsuit against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department for refusing to recover and preserve interpreter notes President Trump unlawfully seized following a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the July 2017 G20 conference. Instead of fully addressing evidence establishing that they broke the law, Secretary Pompeo and the State Department have focused on asking the court to exclude compelling testimony offered by the decorated former head of the State Department’s Office of Language Services, which exposes gaps in the State Department’s rationale for refusing to recover the notes as required by law.
Friday’s filing urges the court to rule against the Trump administration and fulfill the defendant’s legal obligation to seek recovery of the interpreter notes.
“It is clear Secretary Pompeo and the State Department lack any lawful justification for refusing to recover the interpreter notes that President Trump seized after a meeting with President Putin nearly three years ago,” said Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Nitin Shah. “Their failure deprives the American public, and even the administration, of a complete record of what happened in that meeting. Our filing seeks to compel Secretary Pompeo to follow the law and attempt to recover these notes.”
Last month, Harry Obst — a distinguished 30-year State Department veteran and former Director of the Department’s Office of Language Services — provided a declaration establishing that interpreter notes contain contextual details that officials use to create summary memoranda to thoroughly document high-level meetings and to brief relevant government officials. Because President Trump seized the interpreter notes, and they were not recovered, the notes cannot be used to carry out this critical function. The historical record of the meeting will, likewise, remain incomplete.
“If Secretary Pompeo and the State Department had a compelling justification to keep these notes from the public, they would be arguing that justification more forcefully in court,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “Put simply, these notes are federal records, and the public has a right to know what they contain. It’s time for Secretary Pompeo and the State Department to stop playing games and recover these documents.”
Since the Hamburg meeting notes contain details of a critical meeting between foreign heads of state, the Federal Records Act requires they be preserved. Under federal law, both Secretary Pompeo and the National Archivist were obligated to recover the interpreter notes, but have thus far refused to take action.
President Trump has repeatedly attempted to conceal the contents of his discussions with President Putin, and, in his first meeting with the Russian government, President Trump is reported to have revealed highly classified information to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. And Secretary Pompeo’s refusal to comply with federal recordkeeping law is of a piece with his broader disregard for the rule of law, transparency requirements, and ethics obligations.
Democracy Forward and American Oversight filed suit against the Department of State, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the Archivist of the United States, and the National Archives and Records Administration in June 2019 following demand letters sent by American Oversight in January 2019 and Democracy Forward in February 2019.
This latest filing, a reply brief in support of the plaintiffs’ cross-motion for summary judgment, was filed on May 22 in the District Court for the District of Columbia.
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 is the top Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration. Since our launch in March 2017, we have filed more than 100 public records lawsuits, uncovering and publishing tens of thousands of documents including senior officials’ calendars, emails, and expense records. Relying on FOIA and other public records laws, we file requests to uncover misconduct that otherwise would not see daylight, and then we harness the independent power of the courts to force the administration to obey the law.