Newly minted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff hinted over the weekend that he could subpoena notes or testimony from the interpreter in several meetings between President Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a move that would dramatically escalate majority Democrats’ investigations into the Trump administration.
The chamber’s newly empowered Democratic committee chairmen already are probing a range of Trump controversies, including calling a hearing with ex-fixer Michael Cohen who has detailed Trump’s alleged role in making hush-money payments to mistresses.
But a move to obtain interpreter details from Putin meetings would trigger a major confrontation between the executive and legislative branches concerning discussions with foreign leaders. Schiff, D-Calif., weighed in after The Washington Post reported that Trump took possession of the notes from his own interpreter and instructed the individual not to discuss what had taken place in the meeting with other administration officials.
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The report said Trump took the notes after a meeting with Putin in Hamburg in 2017 where his former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was present. The report also said there are no detailed records of Trump’s private meetings with Putin over the past two years, and administration officials have not gotten a full readout from their summit in Helsinki, Finland last summer. The report fueled suspicions from Democrats who have long alleged Trump is too close to Russia, and are closely watching the special counsel probe into possible collusion — which Trump regularly pans as an unfounded “witch hunt.”
“Last year, we sought to obtain the interpreter’s notes or testimony, from the private meeting between Trump and Putin. The Republicans on our committee voted us down. Will they join us now? Shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting ‘America first?’” Schiff tweeted on Sunday.
Last year, Schiff and committee colleague Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., attempted to subpoena the interpreter but were blocked by the committee’s then-Republican majority — with Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., leading his own probe into the Russia allegations and the DOJ and FBI’s handling of them. At the time, Nunes said that he could not “entertain any such request.”
But with Republicans in the minority, Schiff could try again. Swalwell seemed to nudge the chairman in that direction.
“Six months ago, @RepAdamSchiff and I tried to subpoena the interpreter from the Trump-Putin meeting. The GOP blocked us. We knew then something was fishy. We now know Trump took the notes. Lost time and more damage to our democracy is the cost of GOP obstruction,” Swalwell tweeted Sunday.
He added: “Destruction of evidence is consciousness of guilt. At this point please show me evidence that @realDonaldTrump is not working for Russia.”
Trump pushed back on the report in an interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro. When asked if he was or ever has been working for Russia, the president responded: “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked.”
The president’s reported move to ask an interpreter not to share details of his meetings with foreign leaders with other members of the administration could be a response to prior leaks of private conversations with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2017.
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When asked about the president’s alleged directions to the interpreter, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway said “the president was suffering from leaks,” noting the leaked details from his calls with the Australian and Mexican leaders.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are not the only lawmakers pressing ahead with Trump investigations.
Last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., announced that he was planning to dissolve the panel’s terrorism subcommittee and instead create a panel to focus on investigating matters related to the president.
Engel first floated the idea in December, eyeing an investigative subcommittee to replace the terrorism panel that was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“We just thought, if we’re going to do something relevant in this era where Congress is going to reassert itself, where there are so many questionable activities of this Administration vis-à-vis foreign policy, that it made sense to have this,” Engel told The New Yorker in an interview last week.
He said the committee would continue to deal with terrorism-related matters, but there “wasn’t a great clamor” from lawmakers to keep the panel in full, and said some of those responsibilities would be redistributed to other subcommittees.
Engel pointed to the need for more Trump scrutiny, for instance, pertaining to the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki.
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“It’s been many months since Helsinki, and we still don’t know what Putin and Trump talked about,” Engel said, adding that a new panel could also look at the “business interests of the president” and how his financial dealings with certain countries in the Middle East and Russia have “affected what he’s done in foreign policy.”
Also last week, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., announced that he had invited Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen to testify publicly before the panel on Feb. 7. Cohen accepted, and said he was looking forward to “having the privilege of being afforded a platform with which to give a full and credible account of the events which have transpired.”
A federal judge last month sentenced Cohen to three years in prison, following a dramatic hearing at which Cohen said he felt it was his duty to cover up Trump’s “dirty deeds.” In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws by helping orchestrate payments to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who claimed they had sexual encounters with Trump while he was married.
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Trump has repeatedly blasted Cohen and expanded on that criticism over the weekend.
“I was a client of his and you’re supposed to have lawyer-client privilege,” Trump said on “Justice with Jeanine Pirro” Saturday. “But he’s in trouble on some loans and frauds and taxi cabs and stuff I know nothing about, and in order to get his sentence reduced he says – ‘I have an idea. I’ll give some information on the president.’”
He added: “There is no information. … He’s trying to get his sentence reduced. So it’s pretty sad. It’s weak and it’s very sad to watch a thing like that. I couldn’t care less.”
Meanwhile, Schiff, Cummings and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., issued a joint statement following his comments made about Cohen.
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“Our nation’s laws prohibit efforts to discourage, intimidate, or otherwise pressure a witness not to provide testimony to Congress,” the Democratic chairmen said. “The president should make no statement or take any action to obstruct Congress’s independent oversight and investigative efforts, including by seeking to discourage any witness from testifying in response to a duly authorized request from Congress.”
Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly contributed to this report.