Subpoena the Interpreter
Last week, The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump has gone to extreme lengths to conceal the details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On at least one occasion, the Post reported, Trump took possession of the notes of his own interpreter. While questioning the interpreter about the substance of Trump and Putin’s talks would constitute a breach of norms, “pretending now that the old rules can function as intended is not only delusive, but dangerous,” David Frum wrote. “Subpoena the interpreter now.”
In his arguments for subpoenaing Trump’s interpreter, Frum ignores the fact that the Supreme Court now has five conservative justices. Frum himself lists excellent arguments that these five justices could use as justification for ruling in Trump’s favor. If there were a robust dissent by the four liberals, Frum would get the worst of both worlds: The interpreter would not testify and, because the decision was merely 5–4, foreign government officials would be reluctant to be candid in their meetings with a U.S. president.
If we were willing to force Secret Service agents to testify about what they saw or heard while with the president, what’s so different about subpoenaing an interpreter?
Lake Mary, Fla.
I have not seen anyone raise the issue yet of the information that is being lost to history and to future historians. Trump’s appalling ignorance of history makes it clear that he has no respect for the subject.
I respect that Mr. Frum is concerned about the potential gravity of private conversations between President Trump and Vladimir Putin; however, I don’t believe that subpoenaing the American interpreter who was present for one of their meetings at the G20 summit in Hamburg is the correct course.
Three parties were present for the second Hamburg conversation mentioned in David Frum’s article: Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and the Russian interpreter. Assuming that Putin would not extradite himself or his interpreter to testify in front of Congress, the remaining option would be to directly subpoena President Trump to answer questions about what, specifically, was discussed during these meetings. The best avenue for this would be a closed-door meeting between the president and members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (chaired by Eliot Engel). The committee may then choose to release a public report that outlines the broad strokes of the meeting without delving into specifics that are sensitive for national-security reasons.
There is, of course, the counterargument that Donald Trump would either lie, plead the Fifth, or be so intentionally vague as to give no new information at all to Congress and the American people about what conversations are being had at the highest level of foreign affairs. However, lying under oath is itself a federal crime, and if Trump is not forthcoming, then an interview with the interpreter may be in order only to confirm or deny what President Trump stated under oath in his testimony. If inconsistencies exist, then a more thorough investigation could follow. David Frum is correct in his concern about President Trump’s cavalier approach to foreign affairs with Vladimir Putin. However, before Mr. Frum pushes for a breach in the ethical wall of interpreters, I’d just like to suggest that he first consider going directly to the source of all these conversations: Trump himself.
“Mr. Interpreter, could you please tell the court what the accused said three sentences ago?”
“I’m sorry, your honor, but I honestly have no idea. Please just ask him the question over again.”
As a professional courtroom interpreter for 15 years, I had exchanges like this on a regular basis. Was I hiding something from the judge? Was I protecting the defendant that I was interpreting for? Not at all. It’s simply that the mechanics of interpreting, especially simultaneously interpreting, involve not really paying attention to what is being said. It is an almost automatic process. Zen, if you will. Or to be less mystical, it’s like your drive home. “Ma’am, could you tell us what business you passed three blocks before you got home?” Absolutely not. You were driving, not thinking.
Questions of ethics aside, to expect an interpreter to recall a conversation from months back is simply an impossible request. And it would have been just as impossible one minute after the exchange.
David Frum’s piece is sending chills through the interpreter community.
It is with undivided horror that I read your article, which advocated compelling testimony from Trump’s interpreter.
An interpreter must perform a very demanding task: rendering on the fly a set of ideas expressed in a foreign language. Among other difficulties, the interpreter must choose between synonyms, with no opportunity to weigh the consequences of his or her choice.
This work is intensely stressful, performed within an immediacy that affords no delay. An interpreter cannot be a reliable witness unless he or she dwells upon what is being said, and in the process fails to perform adequately.
Compelling the interpreter to provide testimony would have a severe chilling effect and damage useful diplomacy.
San Francisco, Calif.