A federal judge on Wednesday rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to toss out a lawsuit over missing notes documenting President Donald Trump’s face-to-face meetings with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
American Oversight and Democracy Forward, a pair of left-leaning watchdog groups, sued Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the State Department, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the archivist of the United States in June over the missing notes. The groups charge that Pompeo violated the Federal Records Act by allowing Trump to reportedly confiscate meeting notes prepared by State Department employees and for failing to preserve them.
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In a ruling from the bench on Wednesday, Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the government’s motion to dismiss the case.
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The order by McFadden, a Trump appointee, means that the lawsuit will be allowed to move forward and gives the government until Jan. 10 to say whether Pompeo complied with federal records law or show why he was not obligated to do so. Pompeo will then have until the middle of March to produce the State Department’s record of evidence.
The Washington Post first reported in January that Trump had gone to “extraordinary” lengths to conceal the details of his meetings with Putin, seizing the notes of his interpreter after the leaders’ first meeting in 2017 and ordering the translator not to disclose details of the discussion. Furthermore, The Post reported that no detailed record of Trump’s communications with Putin existed, prompting a flurry of document requests from Congress and outside groups.
Trump and Putin have met in person multiple times, including a handful of occasions where few, if any, other U.S. officials were present. The disclosure of a lack of records came in the midst of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
“The administration has done everything it can to hide what Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump discussed in Hamburg,” Austin Evers, executive director at American Oversight, said in a statement in response to Wednesday’s ruling. “Today’s ruling is an important step to ensuring the government complied with its legal obligations.”
Democracy Forward’s senior counsel also cheered the order. “President Trump clearly wishes to shield his interactions with foreign leaders even from those within his administration. But the law doesn’t allow Secretary Pompeo to turn a blind eye to those efforts,” Nitin Shah said in a statement, calling the ruling “a win for government transparency and accountability.”
The State Department declined to comment on pending litigation.
In its motion to dismiss earlier this fall, the State Department rejected the watchdog groups’ characterization of the interpreter notes subject to the Federal Records Act and argued that Pompeo, who was not yet secretary at the time of several of the Trump-Putin meetings, was not obligated to recover and preserve the interpreter notes Trump took possession of.
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Trump’s efforts to keep under wraps the details of his conversations with other world leaders have taken on a new light in the wake of the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
As outlined in an August whistleblower complaint, the White House took the unusual step of placing a rough transcript of the July phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, which is at the heart of the probe, in a secure server meant only for highly classified documents.