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.”
New Court Documents Suggest Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway Knew About Porn Star Hush Money Deal
WASHINGTON, July 18, 2019 — Newly-available court documents suggest that two of President Trump’s closest 2016 campaign advisors may have known about a “hush agreement” and financial settlement meant to keep adult film actress Stormy Daniels from talking about her affair in the days before the November 2016 election.
According to unsealed search warrant documents, a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent reveals that Hope Hicks, the former White House Communications Director and Trump campaign press secretary, participated in a three-way call with then-candidate Trump and his attorney, Michael Cohen, at the same time that Cohen was exchanging phone calls and text messages with American Media, Inc. executives Dylan Howard and David Pecker, and Keith Davidson, then the attorney for Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
While the agent does not reveal the contents of the calls, their existence strongly suggests that Hicks was involved in the discussions that led to Cohen making what was later found to be an illegal campaign contribution by paying Daniels money to keep her from talking about her affair before the election.
The same documents also show that Cohen, who is currently in federal prison for campaign finance law violations, contacted Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on the same day that the hush money had been transferred to Daniels.
Neither Hicks nor Conway immediately responded to requests for comment.
This is a developing story. Check back for details.
Trump Administration Moves to Block Nearly Every Asylum Request at the U.S.-Mexico Border
WASHINGTON, July 15, 2019 — The Trump administration said Monday that it would move to block nearly everyone from requesting asylum if they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border by making anyone who did not apply in an another country ineligible.
The forthcoming rule, which is to be published jointly in the Federal Register by the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, would bar any alien from receiving asylum “who enters or attempts to enter the United States across the southern border, but who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one third country outside the alien’s country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which he or she transited en route to the United States.”
If the rule goes into effect and is enforced, it would have the practical effect of making anyone who arrives in the United States at the southern border ineligible for asylum unless they were denied protection after applying in another country, can demonstrate that they were a victim of “a severe form of trafficking in persons, or if the countries they passed through on the way to the United States were not parties to 1951 and 1967 immigration treaties.
Successful implementation of the rule would mark a major victory for President Donald Trump and his administration. Ending the ability of mostly non-white refugees from South and Central America to seek asylum has long been a priority for Trump, who largely based his 2016 campaign on a promise to build a concrete wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump and his allies have frequently complained that the United States’ laws governing asylum — which are based in part on treaty obligations implemented in the 1980 Refugee Act — are a “magnet” which draws undesirable people to the United States.
The President has also frequently repeated the false claim that those seeking asylum are “illegal immigrants,” despite the fact that asylum is a legal process and those who seek it have rights which are guaranteed under the United States Constitution.
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan said the rule is necessary because the supplemental appropriations bill passed by Congress will not be sufficient because Congress has not taken action to amend laws governing the asylum process and make other changes to the immigration system.
“Until Congress can act, this interim rule will help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States and enable DHS and DOJ to more quickly and efficiently process cases originating from the southern border, leading to fewer individuals transiting through Mexico on a dangerous journey,” he said.
Attorney General William Barr also defended the rule, calling it “a lawful exercise of authority provided by Congress to restrict eligibility for asylum.”
But Congressional Human Rights Council Chairman Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., called the Trump administration’s latest attempt to limit asylum claim an “un-American” rule which “once again highlights the Trump administration’s obsession with inflicting cruelty and pain on refugees seeking legal asylum from violence.”
“It contradicts the spirit of laws which Congress has passed to protect asylum seekers and is not legal under the statutes they cite. I hope the courts hold the administration accountable to the rule of law and put an end to this nonsense as quickly as they can,” he said.
In a statement, ACLU Immigrant Rights Project Deputy Director Lee Gelernt said the Trump administration “is trying to unilaterally reverse our country’s legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger.”
He added that the new rule is “patently unlawful” and said the ACLU will sue to block it “swiftly.
The immigration treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory are the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, or the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Trump Unleashes Racist Smear Against House Dems’ ‘Squad’
WASHINGTON, July 14, 2019 — President Trump on Sunday cribbed a line from a Jim Crow past most Americans hoped was well behind them, by suggesting that the four progressive House Democrats collectively known as ‘the squad’ should return to the countries associated with their ethnic backgrounds.
“So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” Trump tweeted Sunday morning, just before leaving for yet another round of golf at a Trump Organization property.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how t is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” he added.
Trump’s tweet was directed at four freshman Democrats with minority backgrounds who’ve have often drawn the ire of both Republicans and more moderately-minded Democrats since joining the House in January, and was reminiscent of taunts hurled at civil rights activists in the Jim Crow south, telling them to “go back to Africa.”
Two of them, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., are the first Muslim-American women ever elected to Congress, while the other two gained their seats by defeating more moderate veterans.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., became the youngest person ever elected to the House after knocking off then-Democratic caucus chair Rep. Joseph Crowley in a shocking primary upset. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., took a similarly meteoric path to Washington by defeating then-Rep. Mike Capuano, a 20-year veteran of the House.
Despite Trump’s insistence that all four should “go back,” most have nowhere to go back to except their home states.
While Tlaib is of Palestinian descent, she was born in Detroit, Michigan. Pressley, the Massachusetts freshman, was born in Ohio, Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx (despite suggestions from her Republican critics that she is from Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States and not a foreign nation).
Only Rep. Omar, who came to the United States as an 11-year-old refugee after her family fled Somalia, was born abroad, but she has been a citizen since 2000.
The first Somali-American to serve in Congress, Omar has been the subject of a constant drumbeat of attacks from the more conspiracy-minded corners of conservative media since she won the seat vacated by now-Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who’d been the first Muslim-American elected to Congress.
And although tensions between Ocasio-Cortez and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had been flaring since the foursome broke ranks to vote against a supplemental appropriations package they said lacked provisions for oversight of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies, Pelosi on Sunday was one of the first to weigh in in defense of the so-called “squad.”
“When [Trump] tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to “Make America Great Again” has always been about making America white again,” she tweeted.
Also speaking up in their defense was Tlaib’s fellow Michigander, Rep. Justin Amash.
Amash, who recently became an independent after bolting the GOP this past July 4, called Trump’s comments “racist and disgusting.”