Washington • Six Senate Democrats are demanding that U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and Defense Secretary James Mattis, among others, testify before Congress about President Donald Trump’s private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a letter to Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and five colleagues asked a litany of questions about the president’s meeting and argued that top officials need to appear before Congress to detail what they know about Trump’s sit-down with Putin, which was attended by only the two leaders and their interpreters.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to testify next week and expected to be grilled about the summit.
“In addition, we urge you to immediately send the U.S. ambassador to Russia, an appropriately high-ranking intelligence official, and the secretary of defense to testify before Congress and explain how they will continue to advance America’s interests in light of [Monday’s] summit,” the Democratic senators wrote.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, was present for a larger meeting between the U.S. and Russian delegations.
It’s rare for ambassadors to be hauled before Congress, and even rarer for members to ask for intepretors to answer questions, as some senators, including Schumer and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have argued needs to happen to get a full account of what was discussed.
“We need to have immediate public testimony from Secretary Pompeo, from [Director of National Security Dan] Coats, Ambassador Huntsman, and above all we need the translator who was present for the one-on-one meeting with President Putin to testify openly before Congress,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“That’s not usually done, but there are always some other people in the room so you don’t need the translator, but for some reason, a reason Americans and the world are wondering about, President Trump didn’t want anyone else in the room,” Schumer added. “So to have the translator come testify and tell what happened there is imperative; it is so important.”
Typically, bilateral discussions between world leaders are attended by varieties of staffers who take notes and publicly offer broad details of the conversations.
A Huntsman spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Wednesday did not discuss the request for Huntsman to appear before Congress but pushed back at the idea of an interpreter testifying, noting that the department could find no precedent for that.
“I can tell you there’s no formal request to have the interpreter appear before any congressional committees at this point,” Nauert said in a briefing. “Overall, as a general matter, we always seek to work with Congress. And that’s all I have on this.”
Formal requests to testify before Congress must come from committee heads. Republicans control the House and the Senate and hold the top committee leadership posts.
Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, and his remarks during a joint news conference brought a swift, bipartisan rebuke in Washington, where special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether there was any collusion between Trump’s team and Russia in the country’s meddling in the 2016 election.
While U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered with the election to help elect Trump — Putin has acknowledged he wanted Repubulican Trump to win over Democrat Hillary Clinton — Trump stood to Putin’s side and said the Russian president had denied any attempt to sway the election and that “I don’t see any reason it would be” Russia that did it.
A day later, after blistering criticism, Trump walked it back, saying that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would.”
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative,” Trump said Tuesday.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Ambassador Jon Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.