The move is intentional as the White House sees the requests from newly empowered Democrats as illegitimate, too expansive or infringing on presidential privilege, such as Trump’s communications with his senior advisers or another head of state, according to two senior administration officials. Those officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss strategy, said the White House is intent on challenging most, if not all, House Democrats’ document requests.
Democrats counter that the White House’s refusal to engage is thwarting the legislative branch as it tries to carry out its fundamental duty of oversight. Their inquiries relate to national security matters as well as Trump’s move to declare a national emergency to build his border wall and top officials’ bid to transfer sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, among other topics.
“The White House is engaged in an unprecedented level of stonewalling, delay and obstruction,” wrote House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings in a Washington Post op-ed expressing his frustration Tuesday night, adding: “President Trump’s actions violate our Constitution’s fundamental principle of checks and balances.”
News of the White House’s lack of cooperation came one day after a House Judiciary Committee deadline for more than 81 people or entities close with Trump or his personal business to respond to document requests. The panel had asked the White House for any emails or correspondence related to a host of controversies surrounding the president as well.
The White House has not responded and does not plan to hand over documents immediately, a senior White House aide said Tuesday. An official response to Congress is being drafted and is expected in the next week, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss White House strategy.
In addition to the White House missing deadlines to respond, other government agencies have refused to comply with document requests, according to a comprehensive list compiled in early March by senior House Democrats tracking committee probes of the administration. That list, obtained by The Washington Post, highlights 30 inquiries sent to department or agency heads that have gone either unanswered or answered not to the satisfaction of Democratic chairmen.
Documents and interview requests are central to Democrats’ investigations of Trump. The House Judiciary Committee is investigating whether the president abused his power, obstructed justice or engaged in public corruption. Oversight is juggling probes on topics including security clearances and hush payments made to women alleging affairs with Trump during the 2016 election.
The White House’s no-documents strategy, should it persist, will put Democrats in a difficult position of having to determine whether to subpoena the information they seek — or even go to court. Democratic leadership, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have been wary of criticism of overreach — or “presidential harassment” as Trump often calls it. But Democrats may not have a choice, they say.
Should the White House refuse to comply with subpoenas, Democrats could sue. But litigation could take years, delaying investigations of Trump indefinitely.
Tug-of-wars over document requests between Congress and the White House are nothing new. When Republicans controlled the House, they held former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt and sued the Department of Justice for refusing to hand over material related to the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal.
But Democrats argue that a White House policy of turning over no documents and allowing zero White House witnesses to testify would be new and unprecedented. Past presidents have cooperated to some extent, they say, citing the Obama administration’s willingness to hand over some information pertaining to Republicans investigating the deadly 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
In his Tuesday op-ed, Cummings also pointed to the George W. Bush White House giving Congress “more than 20,000 pages” related to Hurricane Katrina as well as interviews and documents the Bush administration shared on the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name.
Trump White House officials, meanwhile, dismissed the House Democratic inquiries as political stunts. One administration official argued that House Democrats know the documents they seek are guarded by executive privileged.
“They are doing it for headlines,” the official said.
In the House Judiciary Committee’s recent White House document request, the panel sought emails or correspondence related to Trump and former White House lawyer Donald McGahn’s interactions on Michael Flynn lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. They asked for anything on the firing of ex-FBI director James B. Comey as well as communications related to former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
The panel also sought documents related to any White House talk of firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or of giving pardons to Trump confidants ensnared in the Mueller probe. The letter also requested any information surrounding hush-money payments to women alleging affairs with the president, as well as White House discussions of foreign governments participating in Trump Organization transactions.
Despite the White House’s refusal to engage, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) seemed hopeful about his investigation Monday, saying he had received “tens of thousands” of documents from others.
“I am encouraged by the responses we have received since sending these initial letters two weeks ago,” Nadler said. “It is my hope that we will receive cooperation from the remainder of the list, and will be working to find an appropriate accommodation with any individual who may be reluctant to cooperate with our investigation.”
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee challenged Nadler’s assertion, arguing that the panel had obtained little of consequence and dismissing the probe altogether. The committee released the names of only eight people or individuals who had complied with the document requests, though panel Democrats argued that additional documents were on the way.
“Democrats have only provided about 8,000 pages of documents received in response to their 81 letters, which doesn’t approach the claim they’ve received tens of thousands of documents,” said a spokesman for the GOP. “Either Democrats are deliberately concealing committee records — which confirms they’re invested in partisan inquisitions more than credible oversight — or they are deliberately misrepresenting the facts to the press and American public. Which is it?”
In total, the Judiciary Committee has sent four letters to the White House seeking materials for its investigations. The White House declined to provide answers to a Feb. 15 inquiry asking for more information about whether Trump sought guidance from the Defense Department or the Office of Legal Counsel before he made his emergency declaration, a Judiciary Committee official said.
The panel in late February similarly asked for the White House to explain why Justice Department officials, namely former acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, would not answer questions for a probe of whether Trump interfered in law enforcement actions at the Justice Department. Whitaker neither invoked executive privilege nor answered questions, angering Democrats.
The deadline for that letter, March 7, came and went without answers, the panel source said.
The White House has a Wednesday deadline to answer a fourth Judiciary letter. That correspondence seeks information on Trump’s involvement with the Justice Department’s move to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner.
Cummings and Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee are equally frustrated with the White House. They have asked the administration about White House officials’ use of private email, as well as Trump’s move to give his son-in-law Jared Kushner a security clearance despite national security officials’ concerns.
The committee has also sought more information about who knew what about hush payments to women as well as any White House involvement in a scramble to remove and then reinstate the Department of Education’s inspector general.
The panel has not received a single document from the White House. And White House lawyers have denied requests to speak to officials who might know more.
Other House committees, according to the document viewed by The Post, have also inquired about the genesis of the family separation policy for immigrants, changes to the U.S. asylum policy and Environmental Protection Agency regulations, among other issues. They have similarly received little or nothing, according to the March list complied by senior Democrats.