Republicans on Tuesday stifled a Democratic attempt to force the Justice Department to produce records related to its investigation of whether Donald Trump and his campaign had secret ties to Russia. A powerful GOP committee chairman said, however, that he would urge federal authorities to continue their probe.
The party-line House Judiciary Committee vote concerned a “resolution of inquiry,” an obscure legislative maneuver that allows Congress to demand documents from the executive branch. Under House rules, such a resolution must be debated in committee or be sent directly to the House floor.
The resolution was among the steps that members of the Democratic minority in the House have taken to pressure the GOP to toughen its oversight of President Trump and his administration. It asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide records that pertain to any “criminal or counterintelligence investigation” into Trump, his White House team or certain campaign associates; any investment made by a foreign power or agent thereof in Trump’s businesses; Trump’s plans to distance himself from his business empire; and any Trump-related examination of federal conflict of interest laws or the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who filed the resolution, told his colleagues that the panels’ lawmakers should not “bury our heads in the sand.”
“The security and integrity of our nation are at stake,” he said. “It is unfortunate that we must resort to a resolution of inquiry to learn the truth about these serious issues. However, the House has so far abdicated its constitutional responsibility to provide meaningful oversight into the Trump administration, and it is time that we do our duty. . . . The public deserves to know the truth about the president, and we must not stop until we get these answers.”
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, called the resolution “unnecessary, premature and not the best way for this committee or the House to conduct oversight.” Instead, he said, he plans to send a letter requesting that Sessions “proceed with investigations into any criminal conduct regarding these matters” — acknowledging, at the same time, that his own requests for a Justice Department briefing on the Russia allegations had gone unanswered.
“This resolution is about politics, not information,” Goodlatte said, pointing to a Nadler news release boasting that the resolution would “force” a GOP vote on Trump. “Our oversight efforts can and should be better than that,” Goodlatte said.
Also opposing the resolution was Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who had gained headlines in recent days by calling on Sessions to step aside and allow an independent prosecutor to handle the Russia probe. Sessions, a former senator, was an early endorser of and key adviser to Trump’s campaign, and he has close ties to senior White House aides.
But Issa said Goodlatte’s plan to send a letter to Sessions was “fitting and appropriate as a first step,” noting his own history while Oversight Committee chairman of being a prolific sender of letters. “Virtually without fail, my investigations started with letters,” he said. “So I, with utmost of respect for my colleagues, would ask that we use the system first.”
Nadler reminded Issa that he filed his resolution only after three letters Democrats had sent to Republicans went unanswered.
Issa assured him he would persist: “I have a long history of limited patience. . . . I am, if nothing else, tenacious.”
The debate took place over the course of several hours Tuesday evening, not long before Trump was set to arrive on Capitol Hill to address a joint meeting of Congress for the first time, and it was attended by a capacity crowd of liberal activists who were gaveled quiet on several occasions after cheering Democrats’ remarks.
The final vote was 18 to 16 along party lines to report the resolution unfavorably, meaning it will not be taken up on the House floor. Besides rejecting the underlying resolution, Republicans also voted down amendments that would have expanded it to include documents on White House contacts with the FBI and on Justice Department deliberations on Sessions’s possible recusal.
The resolution of inquiry stands to become a tool that Democrats, with little leverage as the minority party, will use to highlight issues with the Trump administration. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced another such resolution Monday to force Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to release records concerning the administration’s plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee vote came a day after Democrats attempted to bring a resolution to the House floor calling on Trump to release his tax returns to Congress and the public, which he has long refused to do, citing an ongoing Internal Revenue Service audit.
The attempt was turned back on a procedural vote that followed party lines. Two Republicans, Reps. Walter B. Jones Jr. of North Carolina and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, declined to join their GOP colleagues and voted present.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said afterward that by turning back the “sense of Congress” resolution that they had “made themselves accomplices to hiding President Trump’s tax returns from the American people.”
“The American people deserve the truth about Russia’s personal, political and financial grip on President Trump,” she said. “If there’s nothing there, then what are Republicans afraid of?”