Democrats in the House have now taken tangible steps to compel President Trump to reveal the contents of his private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Politico reports. The move sets up an unprecedented confrontation over the issue of Congressional oversight versus presidential discretion.
Two House Democrats, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, told Politico that they are working actively with House General Counsel Douglas Letter to determine the procedural steps necessary to force the president to provide documents connected with several one-on-one meetings between Trump and Putin.
"I had a meeting with the general counsel to discuss this and determine the best way to find out what took place in those private meetings — whether it's by seeking the interpreter's testimony, the interpreter's notes, or other means," Schiff said in an interview.
Because of the unprecedented nature of the request and its potentially far-reaching implications, it is likely that any action would ultimately play out in court, especially since Trump is expected to challenge aggressively.
At the center of the the Democrats' inquiry is one conversation in particular, in which the two presidents met in Helinski last year, after which Trump publicly broke with his own intelligence community to state that there was no Russian interference in the 2016 elections. While Democrats have acknowledged the problematic precedent of giving presidents wide discretion in their interactions with other world leaders, many have also expressed concern that Trump's overall attitude towards Russia warrants a closer look.The inquiry has largely been prompted by a recent article in the Washington Post, which outlined extraordinary lengths taken by the president to obscure meetings with Putin. The article details how Trump shielded details of his interaction with Putin, even from senior administration officials.
"We are concerned about it because it's been many months since Putin and Trump met in Helsinki, and we still have no idea what they talked about," Engel said following the Washington Post story. "That lack of transparency is troubling."
Legal experts continue to weigh in on the nature and breadth of executive privilege, including how it may or may not apply in this case. Schiff maintains that executive privilege, while meaningful, is largely intended to open up conversations between the president and advisors, not necessarily to protect conversations with foreign leaders.
"But that's just a preliminary take. And once we get the studied opinion of the general counsel, then we'll decide how to go forward," Schiff said.