Democrats in Congress are accusing the Trump administration of ordering officials in federal departments and agencies to withhold information they need to carry out their duties, such as preparing for committee hearings.
Party leaders say officials have routinely provided documents and detailed explanations of programs in the past, but now at least two ranking Democrats on congressional committees say their staff members were told directly by workers in agencies that they could no longer speak with them.
The issue started in January and grew into such a concern that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) to track Democrats’ correspondence to the executive branch that have gotten no response. So far, Sarbanes said, there are more than 100 cases from the House.
“House Democrats have sent more than 100 letters to the Trump administration seeking answers to urgent questions … and received no response,” said Ashley Etienne, a spokeswoman for Pelosi’s office. “If there is a concerted effort by the Trump administration not to respond to House Democrats … we will take appropriate action to address it.”
The Trump administration did not respond to a request from The Washington Post to address the allegations of an apparent gag order, but at least one administration spokeswoman denied that her department forbids officials to speak to minority-party lawmakers.
Although responding to letters from lawmakers in the opposition party is a common courtesy practiced by previous administrations, they don’t always respond to every one. Each of the letters Sarbanes shared with The Post were written in March, and some appeared to require time for an adequate response.
A few of the letters seemed political in nature, such as a March 2 letter from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States and calling on Sessions to resign.
But most sought answers or action seemingly on behalf of constituents. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) asked the administration on March 7 to maintain a $9 billion fund to fight opioid and prescription drug abuse in the United States. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) asked Sessions to investigate the slayings of transgender women around the country as hate crimes.
Rep. Annie McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) asked the Secretary of Defense James Mattis for information on reports that up to 30,000 Marines were under investigation for sharing and commenting on obscene photos of female Marines. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats in California’s congressional delegation called on President Trump to declare a major disaster in the state after storms caused mudslides and overflowing reservoirs.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the ranking minority member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, released an angry statement after meeting with officials at the General Services Administration in March. Carper wanted to know whether the use of public land by a Trump hotel in Washington financially benefited the president.
At the end of a list of complaints, Carper stated that “I am even more disturbed by the explicit statements made by GSA officials during this briefing that, beginning on Jan. 20, 2017, the Trump administration changed GSA’s long-standing practice of providing certain documents requested by minority members of Congress.
“During the briefing,” Carper continued, “agency personnel stated that its new practice only assures that such documents will be provided to the committee’s chairman.” Both congressional chambers and their committees are controlled by Republicans, putting Democrats at a disadvantage that did not exist during previous administrations.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said a similar thing happened when he asked his staff to gather information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of Interior last month. Grijalva was stunned when his chief of staff informed him that the staffer tasked with retrieving the information from a congressional liaison office was turned away.
Grijalva said he was told that Fish and Wildlife workers couldn’t speak to minority staff unless they were called as a witness at a hearing. “I’ve been on this committee going on my 15th year,” Grijalva said. “This kind of response is unprecedented.”
Department of Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift denied that Fish and Wildlife workers have been silenced.
“There is no gag order,” Swift wrote in an email last week. “The office of congressional and legislative affairs for both Interior and Fish and Wildlife has been in regular contact with both the majority and minority staff. They have supplied information for a number of requests, and Interior officials have consistently testified at hearings, including yesterday.”
Grijalva’s office responded that the “contact” Swift mentioned was personnel who “told us directly they have been order by the Office of the Secretary not to answer our questions about hearings at which administration witnesses are not present, and have refused to answer … questions.”
Without guidance from Fish and Wildlife, Democrats on a Natural Resources subcommittee said they were powerless to refute claims from witnesses called by Republicans who said the Endangered Species Acts cost projects millions of dollars as a result of delays.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee’s chairman, said he wants to repeal the act that has saved eagles, manatees, condors and other animals from extinction. His office sent quotes from witnesses at the hearing to media that support the chairman’s view that the act slows development.
“Nearly 100,000 projects had to undergo time-consuming and expensive consultation even though none of them would likely jeopardize a listed species or its habitat,” said Jonathan Wood, a staff attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation.
“In many cases, project approval would improve conditions for a threatened species while also bringing much needed economic development to rural America,” said Doug Stiles, general manager of the Hecla Mining Company of Idaho.
The statement, emailed by committee spokeswoman Molly Block, didn’t list the species or areas that Wood and Stiles referenced. Unlike Fish and Wildlife experts, neither of the witnesses are scientists who have expertise in animal habitat and the impacts of development on species.
With no experts present, Grijalva had no idea if their statements, which could influence future legislation, carried any truth.
“Is it true that the ESA is responsible for an economic downturn?” Grijalva asked. “Or are they scapegoating the ESA with the intent to limit it or make it toothless? What’s the reality? This limits our ability to counter those points because you don’t have an agency there that has the information this decision should be based on.”