It’s only February, but the sniping between the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight Committee and the top Republican members of the committee has already begun.
On Thursday, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wrote to Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) to complain about what he termed “extremely unfair and unsupported accusations” included in a letter Cummings sent to the White House Counsel’s Office late Friday.
In that letter, Cummings said that lawyers for President Trump “may have provided false information” to federal ethics officials about the president’s reimbursements to Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, for payments Cohen had made to an adult film actress.
The Republicans complained Thursday that Cummings had misinterpreted documents he obtained from the Office of Government Ethics and, as a result, unfairly accused the lawyers of misrepresenting facts about the Cohen payments.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance violations and lying to Congress, has admitted he paid $130,000 to actress Stormy Daniels in October 2016. Daniels said she had a sexual encounter with Trump years earlier, and Cohen has said the payment was to buy her silence.
After making the payment, Cohen has said he asked Trump’s company for reimbursement. Cohen said in court that he had made the payments “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”
Trump initially said he did not know about the payments. Later, however, his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani revealed that Trump had in fact reimbursed Cohen. In a footnote on his personal financial disclosure filed in May, Trump reported a reimbursement to Cohen. His lawyers said he was disclosing it “in the interest of transparency” and stressed it was not required to be reported as debt.
“These Republican letters seem to be attacking the very concept of congressional oversight,” said Aryele Bradford, spokeswoman for the majority on the House Oversight Committee. “Congress’s job under the constitution is to seek and defend the truth, and be an independent check on the executive branch — not to act as the president’s defense counsel.”
An OGE official declined to comment.
The Jordan letter did not address the president’s changing stories about the payments. Instead, it attacked Cummings’s conclusions about the role of the lawyers representing the president — specifically, Stefan Passantino, a former deputy in the White House Counsel’s Office who now works as an outside lawyer for the Trump Organization.
Citing their own research, the Republican Congress members wrote that Passantino was simply seeking clarification of OGE disclosure regulations during a conversation with OGE experts, and not offering an explanation about the payments.
The GOP letter said that “it is simply irresponsible to conclude that Passantino made false statements to OGE” and that Cummings had “besmirched the reputation” of Passantino and a private-sector lawyer representing Trump, Sheri Dillon. The Republicans said that Cummings “relied only on cherrypicked passages of incomplete, one-sided handwritten notes.” In his letter, Cummings cited documents from OGE stating that Trump attorneys offered “evolving stories” on the payments to Cohen.
The Republicans also wrote to the director of OGE questioning their response to Cummings’s request for information on this matter. They wrote that the nature of the response could have a “chilling effect” on government lawyers seeking answers from OGE in the future.
The complaint is the second in two days lodged by the Republicans on the committee. On Thursday, they noted that Cummings had not included them in drafting or researching an explosive report examining the proposed sale of nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia, a controversial topic within the administration and on Capitol Hill.
The letter sent Thursday by Jordan and the second-ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), reminded Cummings that he had promised greater comity. Cummings’s behavior in this case “is not the fair oversight process you promised for the committee,” they wrote.