U.S. spy agencies may already have access to what President Trump discussed during his private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last year, according to intelligence community sources, potentially undermining Democratic demands that Mr. Trump’s interpreter should be forced to disclose what the two leaders talked about.
The reason, according to those sources, is that the room was likely bugged.
“It’s more than conceivable that Finnish intelligence had the room bugged, and they likely would have shared a transcript of what was said either directly with the CIA or with people accessible to U.S. intelligence officers,” said one of the sources, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
That would pose difficult questions for Democrats on Capitol Hill, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The two Democrats have made headlines recently by threatening to take the unprecedented step of issuing a subpoena to Mr. Trump’s translator, Marina Gross, in the July 2017 meeting without first pursuing classified insight on the matter from U.S. spy chiefs.
“I would prefer not to do that,” Mr. Engel told CNN last weekend of a subpoena for Ms. Gross. “We have to see what we can find out. We may have no choice.”
House Democrats are playing a dangerous political game, said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, who argues that lawmakers should instead seek testimony on the issue from Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and others before opening the “Pandora’s box” of violating a presidential translator’s right to confidentiality in the most sensitive of conversations.
Mr. Hoffman, who retired from the CIA in 2017, would not comment on whether Finnish intelligence may have bugged the room in Helsinki where Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin had their private meeting.
But he stressed that House Democrats should be seeking insight from Mr. Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel before going down “the very slippery slope” of demanding testimony from Mr. Trump’s translator.
“The committee should be calling on them for perspective before opening the Pandora’s box of subpoenaing a translator,” he told The Times in an interview. “If you start forcing interpreters to testify, it sets a dangerous precedent because it undermines the very sensitive work these people are relied upon to do in head-of-state meetings.”
At a minimum, Mr. Hoffman added, testimony from Mr. Coats and Mr. Haspel could address unverified charges that Mr. Trump’s advisers have been kept in the dark about the Helsinki discussion. The charges were thrust into the spotlight last week by a Washington Post report that the president has gone to lengths to conceal details from aides of his multiple conversations with Mr. Putin.
Unidentified current and former U.S. officials told the newspaper that Mr. Trump took the notes of his interpreter after a 2017 meeting with Mr. Putin in Hamburg, Germany, that was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and instructed the linguist not to discuss what was said with other administration officials.
Mr. Trump strongly denied the report.
The New York Times added to the controversy with another story contending that Mr. Trump has privately said on repeated occasions over the past year that he wants to withdraw the U.S. from NATO, a development that has long been a top priority for Mr. Putin.
The revelations fueled House Democratic demands for the translators’ notes, igniting a deeper debate over executive privilege and lawmakers’ right to know.
Last summer, before Democrats took control of the House, House intelligence committee Republicans blocked an attempt to subpoena testimony from Ms. Gross, the State Department interpreter who was the only other American in the room when Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin met in Helsinki.
Mr. Trump faced bipartisan criticism for his remarks at a post-summit press conference in which he appeared to accept Mr. Putin’s denials of U.S. intelligence community findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Mr. Schiff, then the intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat, had pushed to subpoena Mr. Trump’s interpreter. He argued that it was incumbent on lawmakers, “given what the president said publicly that was of such great concern to our country, to our NATO allies, that we find out what was said privately.”
Republicans argued that Ms. Gross’ confidentiality must be protected and that a sensitive, central underpinning of the whole profession of high-level translating would be violated if she was forced to testify.
Now the panel’s chairman, Mr. Schiff is weighing in anew on the matter this week. He told NPR on Thursday that “we intend to do everything we can to find out what took place in these private meetings” between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump.
“We are examining the legal issues around either bringing in the interpreter or getting the interpreter notes or finding out through others [in the] administration what took place,” the California Democrat said. “They may make a superficial claim of executive privilege but … [it] doesn’t seem to me that any privilege applies there.”
James R. Clapper, a director of national intelligence under former President Barack Obama and a critic of Mr. Trump, said it would be worrisome if the president was concealing from his own top aides the substance of his private talks with a foreign leader such as Mr. Putin. But he offered a mixed message on the question of whether U.S. intelligence already knows what the two men talked about.
“We have no idea what went on, and this is with the leader of the arch-adversary of the United States,” Mr. Clapper told CNN this week, but he added that U.S. spies likely tapped foreign sources after the Helsinki summit to push on foreign assets for a readout on the meeting.
“I have to be careful here,” Mr. Clapper said. “But I’ll just say that you can glean snippets of insight into what transpired at meetings by virtue of gleaning some intelligence from … intelligence sources by virtue of discussions by the other party.”
“If that were the case, and I don’t know that it is, then certainly our intelligence community would have access and insight,” he said.
Subpoenaing a president’s interpreter would be a momentous step, he said.
“It’s a good idea,” he said, but “it would set a precedent for future exchanges between heads of state, [and] that’s not good.”
Some say Mr. Trump’s desire to keep the Putin talks private spring from the harsh media criticism he got for the Helsinki press conference.
“What he said in private to Mr. Putin likely wasn’t all that different from what he said publicly at the press conference,” said one intelligence source. “At the end of the day, he probably doesn’t want it exposed that he also sounded like an idiot during the closed-door meeting.”
• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.