Congress Democrats want State Department interpreter Marina Gross to answer questions about the July 2018 meeting between Trump and Putin. The idea was first suggested almost immediately after the summit was over, when it became clear that there might be no other way to discover what was said in the meeting.
The question is, would this be a positive step, not only for Congress, but for the government, the interpreters, and the American public?
At first thought, subpoenaing an interpreter might seem like a brilliant idea. Here are a few reasons why the idea is so appealing in this case.
One Reliable Witness
There were exactly two Americans in the Helsinki meeting: the American president and the interpreter. Since Trump’s behavior is in question, that leaves only one person who can offer an objective account. At the face of it, it would make sense to ask that one person for the details.
This Trump-Putin summit was no ordinary meeting. The secrecy before, during, and after the meeting was far outside the norm. The interpreter, usually privy to inside information about the upcoming meeting, was often excluded.
An Extraordinary Situation
Even those who recognize the need for interpreters to maintain confidentiality may say, “Yes, but this situation warrants the intrusion.” After all, the details could either clear the president of suspicions or play a part in ending his presidency.
For people who understand the way interpretation works, the question is not so clear cut. In the bigger picture, there are considerations that go beyond the simple gathering of information.
Depth of Knowledge
The incredible depth of knowledge possessed by interpreters who pass the State Department’s test sets these interpreters apart as the best of the best. They know the vocabulary for every subject that will be discussed. They understand the cultures and the related nuances of the languages. They have impressive knowledge about government and diplomacy as well as the details of the current situation. Losing these phenomenal individuals would not serve the country’s interests.
A Harmful Precedent
Requiring Marina Gross to testify before Congress would have implications beyond the current political sphere. It would set a precedent that could change the way interpreters work for years to come.
Presidents and other high-ranking officials might begin to have meetings without any interpreters present, which could lead to critical misunderstandings. Future presidents would likely miss the extra help interpreters now provide. There would be no interpreter to question their inaccuracies or help them make their meaning clearer.
And, without the interpreter’s usual records of the meetings, historians and the general public might never have a clear understanding.
A Possible Refusal
Whatever position you take on the need for a subpoena, there are two very real possibilities to consider.
First, Marina Gross may simply refuse to testify. Her professional code of ethics tells her that interpreters must maintain confidentiality in all private meetings. Most reputable interpreters would likely prefer being charged with contempt to falling short of those ideals.
Second, Trump might claim executive privilege and block the subpoena. Given President Trump’s statements on presidential powers, that outcome is easy to imagine.
So, should Marina Gross be subpoenaed? The question is certainly more difficult to answer than it might seem. The outcome could have far-reaching consequence for the government and the American people. For interpreters, the wrong answer could be a devastating blow.
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