Report

Trump-Putin Firestorm Brings Interpreters Out From the Shadows

U.S. politicians debate whether to force Trump’s interpreter to divulge contents of the private meeting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump meet in Helsinki, on July 16. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump meet in Helsinki, on July 16. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

Behind every major diplomatic feat and failure are the interpreters: the anonymous public servants who play a pivotal role in some of history’s most sensitive discussions.

An interpreter’s job is, by design, strictly in the shadows. They stay out of the limelight and translate for world leaders in real time, in high-stakes negotiations where success or failure can hinge on a single word, verb tense, or inflection. Now, the relatively obscure role has been thrust into the spotlight amid the political firestorm of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For a 90-minute one-on-one meeting with Putin, the only other person in the room with Trump on the American side was not his secretary of state or national security advisor, but a career State Department interpreter, Marina Gross. In the days since, the White House has remained largely tight-lipped on what went on in the meeting, fueling fierce backlash in Washington and speculation as to what exactly the two leaders agreed.

Incensed Democratic lawmakers moved to subpoena Gross to learn what Trump and Putin discussed behind closed doors. But on Thursday, Republican legislators blocked their efforts in a down-the-line partisan vote in the House Intelligence Committee. U.S. officials told Foreign Policy subpoenaing a president’s interpreter is unprecedented in modern times.

The political skirmish sheds light on the critical and overlooked role interpreters play in high-stakes negotiations, and raises broad questions about the value of publicly exposing private diplomatic talks—even under the most extraordinary circumstances.

Interpreters “are very significant players in the broader diplomatic machinery,” said Nancy McEldowney, the former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and three-decade veteran of the U.S. foreign service.

“They don’t contribute to the policy deliberations, but the best of them become close, become confidants,” said McEldowney. “The very best of them will say, ‘hey, you have to understand how that will be played,’ or ‘that won’t translate in the right way, it will be misunderstood,’” she said.

Aaron David Miller, a former advisor to six secretaries of state on Middle East negotiations, said the interpreters he worked with provided crucial insights during sensitive Middle East negotiations. The best interpreters not only interpret, but pick up on body language, nuances, and colloquialisms in the foreign language or culture to check the pulse of negotiations, he said. After meetings, “interpreters’ notes become literally gold mines,” he said, helping diplomats reconstruct where the conversations went right–or terribly wrong.

Little public information is available about Gross, Trump’s interpreter in Helsinki. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted on Twitter at the start of the summit that Gross is “absolutely fantastic.” (McFaul himself was ensnared in the Helsinki fallout when the White House said it would consider letting Russian authorities question him, sparking outcry and a sharp bipartisan rebuke from Congress.)

Top Republican lawmakers and some former diplomats say the push to subpoena Gross is a bad precedent to set, even under the unusual circumstances of Trump’s private one-on-one with Putin and the controversial press conference following the summit. The former diplomats say it’s critical that private negotiations between a president or secretary of state and foreign counterparts stay private.

“I know in this particular case, the person was a direct employee, but if we are going to start getting translator’s notes, I think we are moving to a precedent that–unless some crime has been committed–is unprecedented and just not appropriate,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Thursday.

Democrats countered, saying desperate times call for desperate measures. “This is an extraordinary remedy, I realize, but then it’s extraordinary for the president of the United States to ask all of his senior staff essentials to leave the room and have a conversation with an adversary,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

McEldowny, the former U.S. ambassador, said she is torn on whether hauling Gross before Congress is a good idea, both to shield the interpreter from a frenetic media spotlight and to protect private diplomatic talks.

“Under normal circumstances, I would say that it should not occur because there is a sanctity of presidential conversations,” she said. “The chief executive of our country needs to be able to conduct diplomacy with some discretion.”

But even she said it’s hard to look past the bizarre spectacle in Helsinki, where Trump lavished praise on Putin and sided with him over the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian election interference (before walking it back a day later).

“We sent one of the most illiterate, ill-prepared, and rash leaders in the history of our country into a meeting with a cunning, manipulative intelligence officer who has been trained to distort and deceive,” she said, referring to Putin, who served in Russian intelligence services before becoming president. “I understand the desire for people to know what happened.”

Miller said lawmakers should spare the interpreter, and instead grill U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on what exactly happened in Helsinki. (The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has summoned Pompeo to testify next Wednesday.)

“If you target the interpreter,” he said, “you’re going to end up one day with a normal president, and a very bad precedent.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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