A new lawsuit filed on Tuesday alleges that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke the law by allowing President Donald Trump to seize the notes from a key meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and failing to take any steps to preserve records of their other face-to-face meetings.
The lawsuit filed by American Oversight and Democracy Forward, two progressive non-profit government watchdog organizations, says that the Federal Records Act requires Pompeo to preserve the meeting notes prepared by State Department employees.
“President Trump has taken unusual, and in some cases extreme, measures to conceal the details of these meetings, not only from the public at large, but also from key members of his administration,” the filing says. As a result, there is a “total absence” of a detailed record of Trump’s five in-person interactions with Putin over the last two years, even in classified files, the filing says.
Tuesday’s lawsuit comes a week before the next G20 summit, which will take place in Osaka, Japan, on June 28 and 29. Although there is no official meeting planned, the Kremlin has said the two leaders could meet informally.
“On the eve of another meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, Secretary Pompeo’s actions ensure that our relationship with Russia remains shrouded in secrecy, with the American government left in the dark,” said Anne Harkavy, the executive director of Democracy Forward.
While the lawsuit alleges that Pompeo repeatedly failed to document the president’s meetings with Putin, it focuses on Trump’s actions at the G20 in Hamburg in July 2017, where he met with the Russian president for two hours with no aides present. Trump “took possession of written notes documenting the meeting from the official who created them” and instructed them not to discuss what was said at the meeting with other members of his administration, the filing says, citing details first reported by the Washington Post.
Not only was there no official read-out or public statement, but the absence of documentation left White House and State Department aides scrambling to find out what had been said. This caused confusion when the Russian side claimed a number of agreements had been reached.
“We aren’t talking about old outtakes from ‘The Apprentice,’” American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers told TIME. “This may be the only written record of a meeting between two heads of state, and the interpreter’s notes can’t be seized or destroyed just because President Trump might want them hidden.”
Experts say Trump’s efforts to conceal the substance of such key meetings with a foreign leader are unprecedented in the modern era. They warn that it may pose serious problems for the next administration, which will be left to guess what Trump communicated to Russia, what was communicated back, and what promises were made.
“It’s really surprising how far this has gone,” said Douglas Cox, a law professor who specializes in government records law at the City University of New York. “When you’re talking about meetings at this level of importance that involve foreign policy and national security, the idea that they wouldn’t be fully documented and that in the future we won’t know what happened is remarkable and disturbing.”
The new tests presented by Trump’s actions are also exposing the limits of federal records laws, which offer little deterrence or consequences, and have traditionally been interpreted quite narrowly. The organizations are also suing David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, for failing to carry out his duties under the Federal Records Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. While the lawsuit notes that the “unlawful seizure of the meeting notes” should legally be referred to the Attorney General, it would be unlikely to result in meaningful action.
“In the vacuum created by the limitations on Congress’s ability to take action and in view of the Attorney General’s unwillingness to fulfill his responsibility, one would hope that the courts might recognize the need to step in and be more aggressive in enforcing these laws,” Cox said.
Democrats have raised the prospect of forcing the interpreter who was present at the meeting to testify, or subpoenaing their notes. Critics have warned that would create a dangerous precedent when it comes to confidential conversations the president has with world leaders.
“It may be unprecedented to subpoena a translator to reveal the details of a private meeting between the president and another world leader,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, wrote in a letter to the House Oversight Committee last summer when the idea of calling the interpreter before Congress was first raised. “But Trump’s actions are unprecedented in a way that harms our national security.”