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In Donald Trump’s White House, Oversight By Democrats Lacks Legitimacy

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An empty chair stands where Attorney General William Barr was set to sit on May 1, when he had been set to testify before the House Judiciary Committee

WASHINGTON, May 7, 2019 — Whether it’s a lawful request for President Trump’s tax returns from the House Ways and Means Committee chair, a Judiciary Committee subpoena for a former White House official, or a routine request to have a cabinet secretary testify at a routine Appropriations Committee hearing, the Trump administration has had a consistent message for oversight-minded members of Nancy Pelosi’s caucus: You have no authority because you’re Democrats.

Since Trump took office in January 2017, his administration has routinely instructed agencies to not respond to document requests and inquiries from Democrats, who then made up a minority in both the House and Senate. Though unprecedented, the White House characterized the move at the time as being consistent with how past administrations dealt with the minority party in Congress.

And while Democrats might have expected this to change when they took control of the House of Representatives on January 3rd, President Trump and his administration appear to have rejected the very legitimacy of oversight by a body controlled by members of opposing political party.

Instead of recognizing Congress as a co-equal branch of government with legitimate oversight authority, Trump has frequently railed against what he calls “Presidential harassment” and ordered administration officials not to turn over documents or give testimony on all sorts of matters that would normally fall under the Legislative Branch’s purview.

As a result, Democratic committee chairs have been stymied in their efforts to obtain even the most mundane information about agencies they are supposed to oversee, leaving House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., to reveal that as of earlier this year, the Trump administration had not turned over “a single piece of paper” in response to requests from the Democratic majority.

Tax request rejection puts Mnuchin opposite law

On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin became the latest Trump official to reject the idea that a Democratic committee chairman had the authority to make a request of him, even one specifically provided for by statute.

In a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., Mnuchin declared that he would not obey a century-old provision in the Internal Revenue Code requiring the IRS to honor Neal’s request for six years of President Trump’s tax returns, because the request “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose.”

While Mnuchin’s denial of Neal’s request stands out because it is in violation of a clear provision in existing law, his reason for denying Neal’s request is consistent with language used to justify previous refusals to comply with both routine document requests and subpoenas issued by committee chairs.

Cummings, for instance, received a letter last week from the office White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, informing him that in Cipollone’s determination, the Oversight Committee’s request for documents related to President Trump’s decision to override career officials by ordering that his family members be given Top Secret security clearances despite their extensive foreign ties “fall[s] well outside the realm of legitimate congressional information requests.”

Cipollone had previously derided the Oversight Committee’s probe into how Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, were granted Top Secret clearances as an “improper” investigation which “has no valid legislative purpose, and clearly is a mere pretext to harass and intimidate dedicated public servants.”

Official says Dems’ oversight authority doesn’t allow looking back

One senior administration official BeltwayBreakfast spoke with explained that the Trump administration views a request with a “legitimate legislative purpose” as one that is solely “prospective in nature,” which seeks “information or documents that you are gathering in order to write a new law or change existing law.”

But when asked if the White House had deemed any Democratic oversight request legitimate enough to warrant a response, the official could only point to a briefing on security clearance procedures which the White House held for House Oversight Committee staff.

That briefing, which did not include any information on how Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had received their clearances, was later cited by the White House as a reason to deny Democrats’ requests for documents.

The official denied that political considerations have played any role in the administration’s refusal to comply with Democratic document requests or subpoenas, and instead characterized the White House’s response as “pursuant to a longstanding tradition of accommodation where there’s a back-and-forth negotiation over a what exactly, the committees are doing oversight on.”

But other White House officials — including the President himself — have repeatedly attacked Democrats’ oversight efforts as unnecessary acts of partisan overreach, serving no purpose except to dig up dirt with which to damage a Republican chief executive.

On matters pertaining to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, the White House has argued that because Mueller received countless documents from the White House and Trump campaign, as well as testimony from numerous administration officials, there is no need for the White House to subject any current officials — or even former ones, in the case of McGahn, who returned to private practice at Jones Day last year — to what both Trump and advisers like Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway have characterized as a “partisan” investigation.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Trump even went so far as to characterize a Democratic-led House as an arm of a political party instead of one half of the Article I branch of government.

“I don’t want people testifying to a party, because that is what they’re doing if they do this,” he said.

GOP disdain for Dem voters key, historian says

Geoffrey Kabaservice, a historian and author who has written extensively about the Republican party, told BeltwayBreakfast that he attributes the Trump administration’s attitude towards Democrats’ oversight efforts to a worldview held by those “on the far-right fringes” of the GOP, who see the Democratic party as inherently illegitimate because of their reliance on voters in urban areas, many of whom are not white.

“The feeling is, you know, that the Democrats represent only that part of country [living] in the cities, which is unrepresentative of the country. And they rely on the votes of immigrants and many people who voted illegally, and therefore they do not actually represent the majority of the country and…should not be pursuing this kind of investigation,” said Kabaservice, who is currently director of political studies at the Niskanen Center.

Experts call White House posture ‘ridiculous,’ ‘absurd,’ ‘bizzare’

As for the White House’s contention that the only legitimate exercise of oversight authority is prospective, longtime Senate aide Jim Manley had only ridicule for such a notion.

“Based on my years of experience, I have no idea what that senior White House official was suggesting,” said Manley, who spent four decades working for a succession of senior Democratic senators, including Harry Reid, D-Nev., Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and George Mitchell, D-Maine.

Manley stressed that Congress’ oversight responsibilities include both prospective oversight towards writing new legislation, and retrospective oversight of past events. He noted that there had been several prominent examples of retrospective oversight while the House was under Republican control, pointing to investigations GOP chairmen conducted into the Obama-era Justice Department’s “Operation Fast and Furious” and the 2012 deaths of American foreign service members in Benghazi, Libya.

To think otherwise is “so ridiculous,” he said. “There’s not much else to say.”

While some Democrats have called Trump’s stonewalling Nixonian, Former Watergate Assistant Special Prosecutor Nick Akerman told BeltwayBreakfast that the Trump administration’s blanket refusal to submit to oversight by House Democrats as “bizarre,” “ridiculous,” and more extreme than even the Nixon administration’s periodic intransigence in the face of various Watergate investigations.

He noted that while Nixon tried to shield some documents — most notably the tapes of his Oval Office conversations — from Congress, officials from his administration frequently appeared before both the House and Senate Judiciary committees.

“This goes far beyond anything [Richard] Nixon did,” said Akerman, now a partner at the law firm of Dorsey and Whitney. Even Nixon, he said, never rejected the authority of Congress because it was controlled by the opposing party.

One member of both the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., called the administration’s position was “absurd.”

“The House is either going to be in the hands of both Republicans and Democrats, and the same goes for the White House. It can’t be that our constitutional oversight power only exists when the same party is in power in both the House and the presidency,” said Raskin, who joined the House after 26 years teaching constitutional law at American University’s Washington College of Law.

“We have a constitutional oversight power regardless of who is in the majority in Congress and who is in the White House, and the Supreme Court has been very clear that the power of inquiry and investigation is essential to the legislative function.”

Raskin, who represents first and second-year House members on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, added that the reasoning behind the White House’s rejection of House Democrats’ oversight requests by Trump and his advisors “makes as much sense as saying the President cannot veto legislation passed by a Democratic Congress.”

“The President is acting with complete defiance and contempt of Congressional power under the constitution,” he said.

Another Democrat with oversight expertise, former House Judiciary Chief Counsel Elliot Mincberg, echoed Raskin’s comments in a phone interview with BeltwayBreakfast, calling the Trump administration’s blanket rejection of oversight by Democrats “an outrageous position” that he has not seen from any prior administration of either party.

“I’ve never seen an administration, Democratic or Republican, take that view,” said Mincberg, now a senior fellow with People for the American Way.

Mincberg explained that some of the legal papers Trump’s personal lawyers have filed to try and block Democratic subpoenas cite court cases from 1870s which have not been good law in over a century.

“The courts have recognized since the 1920s that Congress has a crucial oversight role to play for a number of reasons,” he said, adding that oversight becomes even more important when control of government is divided.

While administration officials have characterized their rejections of various Democratic oversight requests as consistent with longstanding principles governing separation of powers, Mincberg noted that what the Trump White House is doing goes far beyond the usual disputes between branches of government controlled by opposing parties.

“President Obama criticized Republicans for the amount of oversight they did when he was President, and [George W.] Bush and [Richard] Nixon criticized Democrats for the oversight that they did, but never have we seen this kind of apparent refusal to cooperate,” he said.

“Trump has taken it to an extreme that we haven’t seen even among Republicans previously. These actions are way more extreme.”

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Andrew Feinberg covers the White House, Capitol Hill, and anything else you can think of for BeltwayBreakfast.com and BroadbandBreakfast.com. Andrew has reported on policy and politics in the nation's capital since 2007, and his writing has appeared in publications like The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Silicon Angle, and Washington Business Journal. He has also appeared on both daytime and prime radio and television news programs on NPR, Sirius-XM, CNN, MSNBC, ABC (Australia), Al Jazeera, NBC Digital, Voice of America, TV Rain (Russia) and CBS News. Andrew wishes he could say he lives in Washington, DC with his dog, but unfortunately, he lives in a no-dogs building in suburban Maryland.

He Went To Jared!

White House Hopes Kushner Immigration Plan Will Be ‘First Step’ Towards Reform Legislation, Officials Say

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White House Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner delivers remarks at the working luncheon for the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 26, 2018 at the U.S. Department of State, in Washington, D.C. (State Department photo)

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2019 — President Trump on Thursday will unveil an immigration reform plan that would translate some of his rhetoric on the subject into concrete proposals, White House officials said.

The plan Trump will lay out in remarks delivered from the White House Rose Garden is largely the work of Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, a senior administration official told BeltwayBreakfast.

The official said Kushner hopes the plan can provide Republicans with a set of proposals that would have the President’s support if passed as legislation, and hopefully let him replicate the success he had shepherding the FIRST STEP Act criminal justice bill through Congress by bringing that experience to bear on an issue on as toxic as any in American political discourse.

The forthcoming proposal “is a first step towards having that discussion,” he said.

As described to BeltwayBreakfast, Kushner’s plan would address problems the President has identified as weaknesses in current immigration law and is built around several “pillars,” including securing the US-Mexico border, protecting Americans’ wages, satisfying employers’ need for skilled workers, and unifying families while preserving America’s “humanitarian values.”

The White House is presenting it as an effort to overhaul an immigration system that has remained largely unchanged over the half-century since then-President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act into law.

That law, which became effective in 1968, retooled the American immigration system from one that utilized quotas favoring northern and western Europeans over immigrants from Eastern Europe — with heavy restrictions on immigration from countries with largely populations — to one that was blind to race, national origin or ancestry.

According to one senior administration official, the proposal would replace the current system which favors relatives of U.S. citizens and lacks any numerical restrictions for family members with a “merit-based” immigration system which would assign points to potential immigrants based on factors like education, age, skills, employment status, and English proficiency.

While current immigration law allows U.S. citizens to sponsor an unlimited number of extended family members — making them eligible for immigrant visas — the plan the official described would limit “family unification” eligibility to a U.S. citizen’s children and spouse, putting an end what anti-immigration activists and President Trump call “chain migration.”

It would also eliminate the “diversity lottery,” which gives citizens of countries with low rates of immigration to the United States a chance to obtain an immigrant visa. The President has frequently attacked the program as one that allows other countries to “enter” undesirables in order to send them to the United States without vetting, even though individuals enter the lottery on their own initiative and are thoroughly vetted before being allowed to enter.

Even with the demise of the visa lottery and the restrictions on immigration by citizens’ extended family members, another White House official stressed that the proposal would not effect the overall number of legal immigrants entering the U.S. because it would increase the number of immigrants admitted on merit — described by the official as “the best and brightest” — from 12 percent to 57 percent.

“We’re not increasing it, we’re not decreasing it,” the official said. “We’re just changing the composition.”

Officials said the Kushner plan will also feature a border security component, including funding for border security measures, including 33 sections of the President’s wall along the US-Mexico border, new technology and infrastructure improvements at ports of entry, and a sustainable fund for border security.

Additionally, the plan would also reform existing asylum laws by tightening requirements for asylum and giving immigration officials the tools to reform what the White House official described as a system rife with fraud by removing “magnets” for asylum seekers and closing what the administration has described as “loopholes” that allow asylum seekers to easily remain in the country.

Although the plan described to BeltwayBreakfast was long on goals, administration officials were short on details when asked for specifics about the what proposed changes the plan would make to asylum laws, or whether those changes would allow the U.S. to meet its treaty obligations under the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Such details — including proposed legislative language for Congress — are several weeks away, said the official, who noted the plan was more a starting point than a finished proposal.

But even in a more detailed form, the plan looks to be dead on arrival in Congress, as Democrats have been loathe to take up any immigration reform proposal that does not address the status of millions of people who are currently living in the U.S. without authorization.

In particular, Democrats have repeatedly balked at proposals that fail to provide permanent protection and a path to citizenship for so-called “dreamers,” undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children. While some undocumented immigrants are covered by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, no new sign-ups have been permitted since President Trump ended the program in 2017.

When asked why the plan made no attempt to address matters that would be necessary to garner the required Democratic votes for passage in the House or Senate, the official stressed that the plan is more a statement of priorities for Republicans to rally around than a comprehensive solution of any sort.

“This is a ‘Here’s what merit-based immigration looks like under the Trump administration, here’s what border security looks like,’ which is progress,” but isn’t going to resolve the systemic problems, he said.

“Nobody’s ever put something out and people say: ‘That’s the greatest idea, let’s sign it tomorrow, let’s do a parade for you.’ Where you start is never where you end. This is the right place to start.”

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Eyes on 2020

In Phone Call With Putin, Trump Did Not Discuss Russia’s Help on His 2016 Campaign

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WASHINGTON, May 3, 2019 — President Donald Trump on Friday spent over an hour talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin without warning the Moscow strongman against repeating the campaign of assistance Russia mounted to aid the President’s 2016 election effort.

The phone call was first disclosed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who told reporters that the two leaders spoke for more than 60 minutes Friday morning in order to discuss a number of subjects, including trade, a potential nuclear agreement, North Korea, Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the presence of Russian forces in Venezuela.

But when the Wall Street Journal’s Vivian Salma asked Trump if he’d raised the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election during an Oval Office photo opportunity with Slovak Republic Prime Minister Peter Pelligrini, he became irate and began interrupting the reporter.

“Excuse me. I’m talking. I’m answering this question. You are very rude,” Trump interjected after Salma asked if he’d told Putin not to meddle in the upcoming 2020 election. When other reporters asked again shortly after that, Trump curtly replied that he did not discuss election interference with Putin.

But Trump said that he did speak to Putin about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s efforts to aid his campaign, and even took a moment to describe Putin’s reaction and relay his comments to reporters.

“He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse,” Trump said. “But he knew that because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever.”

Although Trump continues to claim that Mueller found “no collusion” between his campaign and any Russians, the special counsel’s 199-page Volume 1 report, which dealt with Russia’s interference in the 2016, does not back up his assertion.

While Mueller was not able to charge any Americans associated with the President or his campaign with conspiring with the Russian government to swing the 2016 election in his favor, he identified a multitude of contacts between Trump associates and various Russian nationals with connections to the Kremlin, including a meeting between Trump campaign bosses and a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

The volume also chronicled meetings between Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and a Russian oligarch, during which Manafort turned over sensitive internal polling data which detailed the Trump campaign’s election strategy.

The special counsel also detailed significant efforts by Russian military hackers to steal data from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, data which was later released by WikiLeaks and heavily promoted by Trump himself.

Although Trump claimed that Putin “smiled” during Friday’s phone call, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said the two leaders did not speak by videoconference.

“It wasn’t video. [It was] a phone call,” Gidley said. “He [Trump] meant like, he [Putin] laughed, chuckled.”

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Congress

Nancy Pelosi Says Donald Trump Ready to Spend $2 Trillion on Infrastructure, Including Broadband

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WASHINGTON, April 30, 2019 – President Trump is ready to spend as much as $2 trillion to upgrade Americans’ roads, bridges, waterworks, power grid, and broadband, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said following an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Congressional Democrats.

“It was a very constructive meeting,” Schumer said while speaking to reporters outside the West Wing.

“We agreed on a number, which was very, very, good, $2 trillion for infrastructure. Originally, we had started a little lower and even the President was eager to push it up to $2 trillion. That is a very good thing.”

Pelosi added that Trump appeared to have come into the meeting with the understanding that any package they agreed upon needed to include funding for high-quality broadband internet access facilities.

“One really important advance that we made in this meeting was the President’s acceptance that infrastructure should include broadband. It’s important to health care, it’s important to education, it’s important to commerce, and his embrace of that…was very important.”

The meeting was the first time Trump had been in the Oval Office with the pair of veteran legislators he calls “Chuck and Nancy” since December 18, 2018, when Trump declared that he would be proud to shut down the government if Congress did not fund his proposed wall along the US-Mexico border.

While both sides appeared to agree on the wide scope of a bipartisan infrastructure package, where Congress and the administration will find $2 trillion to pay for it remains to be seen.

Previous infrastructure proposals to come out of Trump’s White House have leaned heavily upon public-private partnerships, loan guarantees, and other vehicles to stimulate private investment. One such plan would have cost only $200 billion, though the administration claimed it would spur up to $2 trillion in non-federal spending.

The White House’s prior efforts have also focused largely on providing largesse to rural America and other areas where support for President Trump is strong, while neglecting the urban and coastal areas where Hillary Clinton won electoral votes in 2016.

As a result, previous infrastructure initiatives have largely fallen flat when presented to Congress, and the White House’s previous attempts to roll out their infrastructure plans and drum up public support have often been overshadowed by outside events — and even by the President’s own actions — making the phrase “infrastructure week” into a macabre joke among both administration officials and members of the White House press corps.

But when it comes to the virtues of public financing for infrastructure projects, Pelosi and Schumer implied that President Trump may have seen the light. The Speaker said the group of Congressional Democrats would return to the White House three weeks hence, at which point Trump would present some of his ideas on how to fund such a massive public works package.

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump and the assembled Democrats had “an excellent and productive meeting on rebuilding our Nation’s crumbling infrastructure including roads, highways, bridges, tunnels and railroads, modernizing our air travel system, and expanding broadband access for our great farmers and rural America.

“We have to invest in this country’s future and bring our infrastructure to a level better than it has ever been before,” Sanders said.

“We will have another meeting in three weeks to discuss specific proposals and financing methods.”

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