July 23, 2018

Who Heard What Tramp Said to Putin? Only One Other American

New York Times, July 20, 2018

Marina Gross, the only other American in the room during President Trump’s meeting on Monday with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, was the interpreter for Laura Bush at the Russian resort of Sochi in 2008 and interpreted for former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in Moscow in 2017. She appears to live in an apartment in Arlington, Va., is an employee of the State Department and is, unsurprisingly, fluent in Russian.

Little else is known publicly about Ms. Gross, who has been thrust into the spotlight as potential corroboration for what transpired between the two leaders during their two-hour meeting in Helsinki, Finland. As furor over the meeting grows, she faces increasing calls from Congress to testify about what she heard. Her fellow interpreters, who pride themselves on their discretion and invisibility, are outraged about those demands.

Ms. Gross’s white pad of notes, visible in photographs from the summit meeting, are probably useless, experienced government interpreters said, dictated in her personal shorthand that would be illegible to anyone else. And if she were to say what, exactly, transpired, she would violate an ethics code of confidentiality similar to lawyer-client privilege or the silence of a priest during confession.

Only Mr. Trump, who has alternately contradicted his own narrative of what was said and complained about a lack of fair coverage from a meeting only four people witnessed, could permit Ms. Gross to tell anyone about what she heard. The White House has not said whether Mr. Trump has asked her to do that. “This is an absolutely nightmarish situation for anyone to be in,” said Stephanie van Reigersberg, who assigned interpreters to such meetings as the chief of the interpreting division in the State Department’s Office of Language Services for 18 years. “It’s a very difficult situation to be in, both in the point of her being asked to give information about what was a confidential meeting and because when you’re doing that kind of interpreting, there are memory issues.”

But some lawmakers have already called for Ms. Gross’s notes, wary of what assurances were exchanged between a Russian leader known for blatant denials and an American president known for frequent falsehoods.

“Given this history, the American people deserve to know if Trump used his position or this meeting with Putin to continue to pursue his own financial interests,” Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, wrote in a letter this week asking the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to hear public testimony from Ms. Gross.

So far that seems unlikely. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to deny a formal attempt from Democrats on Thursday to subpoena Ms. Gross, and State Department officials declined to comment on a hypothetical situation.

But interpreters said that even the discussion over whether Ms. Gross should testify threatened to jeopardize their work.

They point to the code of ethics that binds their profession: Interpreters are “bound by the strictest secrecy” toward anyone and any information disclosed in an environment not open to the public.

During a news conference with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Trump would not say whether he believed Russia meddled with the 2016 presidential election.

“I hope this will remain just a desire expressed by some congressmen,” said Yuliya Tsaplina, 45, a freelance Russian interpreter based in Paris, who said the demands from American lawmakers had ignited heated debate and concern among several of her international colleagues. “We are only as valuable as we can interpret faithfully, accurately, and keep things in confidence. It will essentially destroy all trust in our profession.”

A government official with knowledge of current interpreting practices, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that even in an interpreter’s personal lexicon — symbols, doodles and words used to recall a thought or idea — the meaning can evolve from day to day. This makes it difficult for interpreters to recall chunks of thought. In addition, many interpreters often destroy their notes if a security official has not already requested them after highly classified conversations.

“They go into the garbage bin pretty immediately,” Ms. Tsaplina said of her notes. “Because they’re useless.”

The official said that the calls by Capitol Hill for Ms. Gross’s testimony were shortsighted on behalf of the lawmakers, who frequently use interpreters for their own private meetings. The State Department currently has 12 staff interpreters in Arabic, French, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian and 16 staff translators — who translate the written word — in Arabic, Russian, and Ukrainian, a State Department official said. The department also has three language specialist positions in Bulgarian and Polish, and often supplements staff with contracted interpreters.

Ms. van Reigersberg said that in her experience interpreting in Spanish, she was joined in one-on-one meetings or phone calls by an official note taker or a top security official. If she received permission by the official she was interpreting for, she said, she would often provide a summary to another official that could be corroborated by the note taker. The challenge came, she said, from recalling the big picture of the conversation after relying on short-term memory to interpret.

“Do you really believe a person who has worked that hard, that intensely in that sort of way for so long, can really remember every detail of what she has done?” she said. “You’re listening, you’re writing, you’re figuring out how to render it in the other language, you’re repeating it.”

Stenography, Ms. van Reigersberg added, is “not what our job is.”

The challenge of record-keeping when an American president enters a highly sensitive meeting with a foreign leader, particularly an adversarial one, has long vexed administration officials. Even when President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union brought a small rotation of interpreters for a 1986 summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, the lack of a verbatim transcript prompted accusations of “distortion.” When the pair had met previously with only interpreters, Mr. Reagan had personally briefed members of his delegation twice a day from memory.

Michael A. McFaul, a former American ambassador to Russia, said in an interview on Thursday that note takers were crucial. He described a photo he had of himself, notepad and pen in hand, off to the side as President Barack Obama met with Mr. Putin during Mr. Obama’s first term.

“I was the official note taker for the meeting,” said Mr. McFaul, who has become entangled in conflicting interpretations of whether the White House would allow Moscow to question him. “That’s what’s missing from the Trump-Putin meeting.”

Alexander Vershbow, a former ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush and a National Security Council aide under President Bill Clinton, said it would most likely be a violation of executive privilege to force Ms. Gross to appear before Congress.

“I think it’s more a reflection of the mistrust of President Trump and his judgment in dealing with Russia, that the interpreter is being used as a whipping boy,” said Mr. Vershbow, who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “I think it’s an unfortunate attempt to politicize the role of the interpreter.”