The Washington Post

White House defies congressional subpoena, but hearing set to continue


The White House is defying a subpoena from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, refusing to make a top political adviser to President Obama available for testimony Wednesday morning.

The clash is the latest skirmish over the powers of the executive branch and particularly the role of White House political advisers.

Tensions flared in a letter exchange late Tuesday between the White House and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the panel. After a day briefing congressional staff, a frustrated White House announced in a letter that political adviser David Simas would be a Capitol Hill no-show. Issa fired back that Simas was still expected to appear for the hearing, set for 10 a.m.

The House committee is questioning whether the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, led by Simas, has used the department to raise campaign funds and support candidates.

White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in his letter to Issa that the subpoena for Simas’s testimony “threatens longstanding interests of the executive branch in preserving the president’s independence and autonomy, as well as his ability to obtain candid advice and counsel to aid him in the discharge of his duties.” In his reply, Issa wrote that Simas is “still under subpoena” and expected to attend the hearing.

File: House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

A White House legal team spent more than an hour on Tuesday briefing Issa’s staff on the political office’s activities, but Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said the administration’s lawyers did not answer questions about documents that the panel requested.

Administration officials rarely defy congressional subpoenas for testimony. When administrations have balked, however, it has sparked intense battles.

Issa contends that federal courts have rejected the notion that White House officials have absolute immunity from testifying before Congress.

A federal court upheld a 2007 subpoena by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had demanded that then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers testify about the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration. The court said Miers had to appear before the panel but didn’t have to discuss privileged information.

“Flouting a federal judge’s opinion about our system of checks and balances is yet another attack on our nation’s constitution by this president,” Issa said in a statement Wednesday.

The White House on Tuesday issued a legal opinion disagreeing with the Miers decision. Assistant Attorney General Karl Thompson said the Justice Department would stick to the executive branch’s “longstanding view that the president’s immediate advisers have absolute immunity from congressional compulsion to testify.”

Wednesday’s hearing is expected to go forward regardless of Simas’s absence. U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner and Scott Coffina, who served as a White House attorney during the George W. Bush administration, are expected to appear. Lerner’s agency, the Office of Special Counsel, enforces the Hatch Act, a statute that governs the political activities of federal employees.

FILE – David Simas, President Obama’s political director, left, and Rob Nabors, Deputy Chief of Staff (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The White House political affairs office started under President Jimmy Carter. Obama closed the department as his reelection campaign was revving up in 2011. He reopened it in January.

In theory, the office is supposed to help presidents understand the nation’s political climate, as well as how their policies are affecting constituents. But the office has a history of sparking controversy.

OSC issued a report in 2011 that said the Bush political affairs office helped coordinate activities that violated the Hatch Act, including sending top appointees to election-battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Mexico.

In another high-profile case, President Bill Clinton and his political affairs staff orchestrated a campaign to raise funds and reward donors with White House perks, such as overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, during his first term.

Issa once challenged OSC’s findings on the Bush political office, questioning the accuracy and motivation of the probe. In 2011, he launched an investigation of the OSC report, but little has come of the review except for a correction to an erroneous determination that one senator had not reimbursed the government for nonofficial expenses.

Democrats have criticized what they call the chairman’s overuse of subpoenas. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, accused Issa of going on a subpoena binge since taking over as head of the panel in 2011, saying he has issued more subpoenas than the last three chairmen combined.

Cummings said in a statement Tuesday that Issa has offered “no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Mr. Simas or anyone on his staff did anything wrong.”

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.