House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler wrote to the White House last month demanding information about President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to fund the construction of a southern border wall.
Yet Nadler’s Feb. 22 deadline came and went with no response. Not only did the Democratic congressman not receive the documents he wanted, he didn’t even receive a customary letter back from the White House acknowledging his request.
It was just one example of the Trump White House’s unusually hostile — or in this case, non-existent — response to congressional investigators.
In their early response to an onslaught of Democratic requests, Trump officials are breaking from norms set by previous administrations of both parties, according to people who worked in the White House or Capitol Hill during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Over the last two months, Trump’s intent has become clear: He doesn’t plan to negotiate with Congress over their demands for information and witnesses the way his predecessors did. Instead, House Democrats are going to have to fight him for everything.
POLITICO contacted the 17 House committees that unsuccessfully requested records or witnesses from the Trump administration over the last two months. In most cases involving the White House itself, as opposed to agencies and departments, the request was ignored altogether. In at least one instance, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone responded with an aggressive letter questioning the committee’s authority to even ask for information. (In contrast to the White House, departments and agencies often delivered requested information politely.)
Another deadline came and went on Monday. The White House ignored Nadler’s latest request for a slew of documents about fired administration officials, Russian nationals and Trump businesses, according to a person familiar with the situation. The White House and Committee declined to comment.
As a result — despite high hopes among Democrats that they would quickly be in possession of troves of internal Trump administration documents, and grilling a succession of administration witnesses — a long and frustrating fight with Trump lawyers lies ahead, a fight that could end up in court. Splashy demands of the White House made in the early days of the new House Democratic majority, could take many months, possibly stretching well into 2020, to produce results.
Democrats are already furious over what they call the brazen stonewalling. But David Bossie, a Trump confidant and adviser who served as the House GOP’s lead investigator into the Clinton White House in the 1990s, predicted that Trump officials will face no serious legal consequences for ignoring the requests — and said they are justified in doing so because Democrats are waging what they call nakedly partisan inquiries.
“The White House is taking the exact right tactic to ignore the requests and see what comes of it,” he said. “I wouldn’t respect [the Democrats’] process.”
The White House failed to provide information about the national emergency to the Intelligence and Judiciary committees by their January and February deadlines, according to information obtained by POLITICO. It didn’t send documents about Trump’s communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees by last Friday’s deadline. And the House Oversight Committee did not receive information about possible breaches of the security clearance system before its March 4 deadline. Cipollone argued that the committee “has failed to point to any authority establishing a legitimate legislative purpose for [its] unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive demands.”
Trump’s advisers are confident that his core supporters will welcome a bare-knuckled response, and hope to persuade other voters that Democrats are overreaching in their oversight responsibilities.
“The White House and the executive branch generally has been stonewalling the Judiciary Committee…” Nadler told MSNBC Monday night. “They’ve been doing everything they can to have witnesses say ‘I won’t talk to you about conversations with the president, I won’t talk to you about this, I won’t talk to you about that,’ without asserting executive privilege. And they have no right to do that.”
The Trump administration, however, has some structural advantages in its fight with House Democrats.
Congress’s leverage to get information has diminished over time because of staff cutbacks, previous partisan overreach and Capitol Hill dysfunction that is preventing them from forcing the White House to turn over records. And the House has less recourse against an uncooperative White House because, unlike the Senate, it can’t hold up administration nominees.
A senior administration official said the White House will assess document requests on a case-by-case basis, calling out committees when it believes they’re making absurd requests and cooperating when necessary. Administration officials met with congressional staff last week to discuss a request for documents relating to security clearance, the official said.
“I think they have an arrogant attitude toward Congress,” said Charles Tiefer, former solicitor and deputy general counsel of the House. “You have to go back to the Nixon administration to find this.”
That doesn’t mean Congress will get nothing.
House Democrats are likely to get documents, particularly on policy issues, from agencies and departments, that don’t have as many protections as the White House. And even if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can’t block Trump nominees, she can resort to other parliamentary tactics, including holding up appropriation riders and authority for different programs.
Even the most aggressive Trump lawyers can do little or nothing to prevent Democrats from getting some records from people and entities not associated with the federal government, including Trump’s adult children and business associates, who have no protections.
Already, House Democrats have received answers to some of their questions from agencies and departments, on a variety of policy issues, signaling their willingness to work with Congress in polite letters.
“In the interest, therefore, of working cooperatively with your Committee I think it would be helpful for you and me, along with other respective staffs, to meet in-person and discuss mutually agreeable search parameters and priorities for addressing the Committee’s outstanding requests,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie wrote to Committee on Veterans’ Affair Chairman Mark Takano Feb. 22 on whether members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club influenced the department.
On Monday, the Judiciary Committee received responses from a “large number” of the 81 largely private entities and people in Trump’s orbit who were asked to provide documents as part of its wide-ranging investigation. (The White House was just one of the 81 entities.)
The White House has always responded differently than agencies because it can claim executive privilege to shield certain communications from legislative and judicial branches. It can also use a long-standing Department of Justice policy to allow top White House advisers to be immune from testifying.
Even by those standards, Trump officials are taking the fight to a level that Congressional and White House veterans call unprecedented.
“The culture of this White House has been not understanding the soft side of skills,” said Andy Wright, who worked on responding to investigations in the Obama and Clinton White Houses and has worked for the House’s oversight committee. “It’s much more aggressive, less graceful, ugly sometimes. The tone is much different.”
Wright, who is founding editor of Just Security, said the Trump White House risks damaging its legal position by closing the door to the sort of negotiation and accommodations that have marked past Congress-White House oversight showdowns.
Committees have the power to subpoena documents and witnesses and to hold officials in contempt if those subpoenas are ignored. That could lead to the case landing in court and even a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney in Washington, though such a referral does not mean that charges will be filed.
Since Democrats took over the House in January, nearly every committee has launched investigations into everything from the easing of sanctions on businesses tied to a Russian oligarch to the federal government’s lease with the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
In total, the administration has at least 30 times refused or delayed turning over documents to 12 House committees, according to House Democrats. Six administration officials refused to appear before five committees while two officials have refused to come in for interviews with two other committees, they say. Sometimes, the administration sent letters refusing, other times they called or emailed.
“In my experience, that was not the approach,” said Ron Weich, who worked on oversight issues on Capitol Hill and the Justice Department. “You always want to answer the letter, even with a courtesy response, or an interim fashion to say: ‘We are evaluating.’ ”
Kyle Cheney, Andrew Desiderio and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.