Watchdog groups sue to stop Trump from illegally destroying notes from Putin meetings


Trump and his secretary of state are working awfully hard to make sure Trump-Putin meeting notes stay hidden.

Trump won't voluntarily preserve notes from his multiple meetings with Vladimir Putin, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo won't make him do it — so two watchdog groups, American Oversight and Democracy Forward, have sued Pompeo to force him and Trump to follow the law.

It's not only dangerous and improper for Trump to withhold records of his talks with Putin; it's actually against the law. As the lawsuit points out, the Federal Records Act (FRA) requires that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo preserve any meeting notes that were prepared by State Department employees.

However, Trump has gone to such great lengths to hide notes from these meetings that on at least one occasion, after the 2017 G-20 in Hamburg, he took the notes away from the State Department official who created them. He then warned that official that they couldn't discuss what occurred at the meeting with anyone else — not even other members of the Trump administration.

In the event those notes were destroyed, Pompeo would have a legal duty to report that recordkeeping violation to the federal records archivist and to ask the attorney general to "initiate an enforcement action" to recover those records.

Given that Attorney General William Barr has shown himself to be more than willing to do whatever Trump wants him to, it seems highly unlikely that he'd try to force Trump or Pompeo to comply with the law.

Since taking office, Trump has met with Vladimir Putin at least five times — twice during the July 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg, once during a November 2017 Asia-Pacific economic summit, once in a two-hour private meeting in Helsinki, and once at the July 2018 G-20 summit. At least two of those meetings occurred with no American translator present, including one where, oddly, Melania Trump sat in.

Though Trump hasn't said anything, the Kremlin has indicated Trump may "informally" meet with Putin again at this year's G-20 summit, coming up in late June.

Trump is eager to meet with Putin whenever possible, but he's also equally eager to hide any record of those meetings. The complaint notes there is a near-total absence of notes from those meetings, "even in classified files."

Since then, oversight groups and the House of Representatives have been trying to get Pompeo and Trump to follow the Federal Records Act and explain what notes exist from Trump's multiple meetings. The House hasn't had any luck. Earlier this year, American Oversight sent Pompeo a letter asking him to initiate the recovery of the records from the 2017 discussion, but they were ignored.

The lawsuit simply asks that a court declare those meeting records subject to the FRA and that Trump seizing those records violated the law. Similarly, it asks the court find that Pompeo violated the law as well by failing to report the seizure or attempt to recover the records.

It's notable that the watchdog groups aren't even demanding that they get to see the notes — merely that they are preserved somewhere so that, for example, a future administration could be aware of what promises Trump made to Putin. But Trump seems very committed to hiding that information.

It shouldn't take a lawsuit to force Trump and Pompeo to follow the basics of federal recordkeeping laws. But this administration is so consistently lawless that this was the only path left to ensure that one day, someone else knows what happened in that room between Putin and Trump.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.