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The fight over Trump documents is getting heated in the House

Posted at 4:42 PM, Mar 07, 2019

The White House and House Democrats are preparing for an all-out war over a sprawling set of demands made by a host of powerful chairmen, as senior lawmakers say the Trump administration is already engaging in unprecedented stonewalling in just the third month of the new Congress.

Just weeks after launching an aggressive oversight campaign into the Trump administration on every topic from separation of immigrant families on the southern border to connections between Russia and the 2016 campaign, Democrats say they are facing obstacles in getting answers from the federal government with the White House set on protecting the President and defying their requests.

"We can't hold him accountable unless we have information," said Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings of documents his committee has requested. "Every single thing that has been (requested to) the White House, in most instances we have gotten zero. That is unprecedented."

But the White House and federal agencies strongly dispute Democrats' characterization in interviews with CNN. Aides from agencies including EPA, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Education and Department of Interior paint a picture of a Trump administration that they say has been working in good faith to respond to an onslaught of document requests in the first weeks of Congress.

"Claims that DHS is not fully cooperating with Congress on oversight, are untrue and frankly minimize the good faith efforts put forth by the Department so far this year," a DHS spokesperson told CNN. "The truth is, the federal government has only been open for five and a half weeks this Congress due to a lapse in appropriations. Since then, DHS has produced thousands of pages of documents to requesters in various committees in the House of Representatives in the last two weeks alone, including: House Oversight, House Judiciary, and to House Homeland" Security.

The increase in oversight from House Democrats is especially noteworthy in that it contrasts with the way Republicans exercised that responsibility when they controlled the chamber.

Democrats are also combing through many aspects of President Donald Trump's life, from his business dealings to his campaign to his alleged affairs, a culmination that has left Trump venting to allies like South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Capitol Hill.

"He just believes they are out to take a wrecking ball to his life," Graham said of Democrats. "They'll go nuts."

In interviews with CNN, Democratic committee aides and members say the administration is dragging its feet with document requests and withholding information under the guise of executive privilege.

One Democratic leadership aide identified more than 30 document requests that haven't been fulfilled, six incidents of officials refusing to testify before committees and two examples of officials who've refused to come to Capitol Hill to grant interviews. White House and federal agency officials dismiss Democrats' claims they aren't cooperating and argue that no amount of information would ever be enough to satisfy Democrats' political motives.

House investigations keep growing

This week, tensions escalated after House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, announced a sweeping investigation into whether the President obstructed justice, demanding 81 people and entities with ties to the President turn over relevant documents -- a process that could take months or even years to complete if officials drag their feet or requests get bogged down by subpoenas and sent to court. The probe could lay the groundwork for eventual impeachment proceedings if Democrats decided to act.

But, if Democrats have laid down their cards, the White House has also begun a more robust and public pushback campaign, charging the investigation is little more than a political attack on the President with Trump himself reacting to the stream of requests coming from all corners of the House of Representatives.

"They don't have anything with Russia. There's no collusion. So now they go and morph into, 'Let's inspect every deal he's ever done. We're going to go into his finances. We're going to check his deals.' These people are sick," Trump said during a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend.

The White House is saying publicly that it will cooperate with Nadler's sweeping document request, but behind the scenes, officials are preparing to push back on the expansive request and preserve what they say is Trump's right to confidentiality. Part of the pushback will include an effort to limit the number of documents they have to produce, including those from Trump's time in office, like his communications with former White House counsel Don McGahn.

The House Oversight Committee also hit a stalemate this week on their investigation into White House security clearances.

At the end of January, Cummings launched a formal investigation into the issue , requesting specific documents related to the security clearances of former and current White House employees including Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn and John Bolton among others. After The New York Times reported that Trump had personally intervened over the concerns of national security officials to secure his son-in-law Kushner a clearance, Cummings imposed another deadline this week for the White House to turn over documents. The White House responded with a letter outlining that it was happy to provide some records to the committee and give a briefing from a security official, but that it would not be turning over individual security clearance information, arguing it was protected under executive privilege.

"The Committee has failed to point to any authority establishing a legitimate legislative purpose for the Committee's unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive demands: including the demand to examine the entire investigative files of numerous individuals whom the President has chosen as his senior advisors," Pat Cipollone said in a letter to Cummings. "As I have explained in multiple previous letters, it is clearly established as a matter of law that the decision to grant or deny a security clearance is a discretionary function that belongs exclusively to the Executive Branch."

Republicans agree they believe the White House has made an important point.

"I am comfortable with the commander in chief having the sole authority to decide who has clearance and who doesn't," said Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the Oversight Committee.

Cummings has suggested he could subpoena the documents, but has not made a final decision. In February, the House Oversight Committee issued their first subpoenas to the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Health and Human Services to get documents on family separation.

"It's clear the administration is reluctant ... to give us the information we need to do our job," Cummings said. "Under the Constitution, we have a duty -- it's not a witch hunt -- a sworn duty to be a check on the executive branch. I want the American people to understand when you cannot get information, you cannot be a check. We will carefully consider our next options, and we will do things that are responsible."

Not just oversight

It's not just the key investigative committees, however, that say they are running into roadblocks. The House Veterans Affairs Committee, which launched an investigation into how much power a group of Trump's acquaintances from his Mar-a-Lago resort had to leverage over the Department of Veterans Affairs, says they have received little from the administration on their inquiry.

"The administration missed our initial deadline for submission of documents," an aide on the committee told CNN. "While they have since begun sending documents and offered to schedule a meeting with committee staff to develop a new timeline, we have yet to see documents of sufficient quantity or quality to address our requests."

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond to CNN request for comment.

The House Education and Labor Committee has been requesting information from the Education Department about a decision to replace the acting inspector general with one of their own lawyers for over a month.

After the department announced their decision to make Education General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt the next inspector general, the White House and Education Department quickly walked back the move.

Members of the committee have requested information about how and why the initial decision was made. The Education Department responded on February 25, saying that the committee's request "implicates substantial executive branch confidentiality interests."

In order to claim executive privilege in response to a committee request, administration officials must follow a formal process. The Education Department has not begun that process for this request.

"The Department has been and will continue to be responsive to information requests from Congress," Education Spokeswoman Liz Hill told CNN.

On Wednesday, a group of chairmen sent a letter to the General Services Administration, reupping their demand for documents last fall related to their inquiry into how the administration came to decide to keep the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, despite long-time plans to relocate it outside of the city.

"To date, your compliance with our request has been woefully inadequate," the five chairs wrote in their letter Wednesday. "On December 19, 2018, we met with your staff to discuss this request. At that time, your staff produced a copy of highly redacted documents that were partially responsive to one request for a narrow time period," the Democratic letter to GSA said. "These documents had been previously provided to Congress more than one year earlier, and you have produced no additional documents since that time."

In one instance, the Department of Interior sent a letter responding to a request from Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva arguing they didn't have to keep calendars for the secretary .

In a letter, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wrote, "I have inquired with the Department of the Interior's Department Office of the Solicitor and have been advised that I have no legal obligation to personally maintain a calendar. Further, no Agency guidance exists recommending that I create or retain one."