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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 anywhere else news happens for BeltwayBreakfast.com and BroadbandBreakfast.com. He 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.

White House

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Outlines Proposal to Majority Leader for Senate Trial of Donald Trump

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Photo of Sen. Chuck Schumer from December 2011 by Bill Ingalls of NASA

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2019 – Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wants President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to feature witness testimony that was not elicited by House Democrats during their months-long impeachment investigation.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Schumer, D-NY, proposed that the president’s Senate trial begin on Tuesday, January 7th, with House Democrats’ beginning to present their case two days later.

Under Schumer’s proposed trial structure, House Democrats and the president’s attorneys would each have 24 hours to present their case.

But Schumer would also like to hear from witnesses “with direct knowledge of Administration decisions regarding the delay in security assistance funds to the government of Ukraine.”

Among the witnesses Schumer would like Democrats to call are White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Mulvaney adviser Robert Blair, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Office of Management and Budget Associate Director for National Security Michael Duffey.

Messrs. Mulvaney, Blair, Bolton and Duffey were each subpoenaed by House Democrats during the House’s investigation, but each of them declined to appear, citing President Trump’s order that administration officials ignore subpoenas issued as part of the House’s inquiry.

According to Schumer, witnesses are necessary because unlike most figures involved in President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial, none of the witnesses he has proposed have offered any previous testimony, while many potential witnesses at Clinton’s trial testified before Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s grand jury.

“The trial structure I outlined in my letter to Leader McConnell will ensure all the facts come out,” Schumer said Monday while speaking to reporters.

“In the coming weeks, Republican senators will have a choice — do they want a fair, honest trial that examines all the facts, or do they want a trial that doesn’t let the facts come out?” he asked.

“Trials have witnesses,” he said, adding that if Republicans declined to allow witnesses to be called, the American people would infer that Trump has something to hide.

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Opinion

Trump Administration and Its Enablers Attempt to Smear Civil Servants, Not Political Holdovers

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Photo of former U.S. Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch in September 2016 by the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv

After two weeks of hearings which revealed President Donald Trump’s attempt to force Ukraine’s government to announce sham investigations into conspiracy theories meant to exonerate Russia from having interfered in the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden’s family, it’s now a foregone conclusion that Democrats will eventually vote to approve articles of impeachment against a president for only the third time in American history.

When the House reconvenes in December, the task of crafting those articles will fall to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and his staff. They will have a lot of material to work with, mostly testimonial evidence from career foreign service officers, civil servants, foreign policy experts, and even an active duty Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

But rather than accept the testimony of these largely nonpartisan public servants, Republicans have endeavored to shoot the messengers.

Lt. Col. Vindman, who emigrated here as a child from the Soviet Union and who has literally bled for his adopted homeland (earning a Purple Heart in the process), was recently branded as “Vindictive Vindman” by first-term Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

Other witnesses, like Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, have been branded as “Never Trumpers” by the president himself. And the Intelligence Community whistleblower whose complaint touched off the entire impeachment inquiry has been labeled — without evidence — a “Democrat operative” by Trump defenders such as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member.

Some observers may see the constant counterpunching and impugning of witnesses’ motives as just another part of Republicans’ strategy to defend President Trump. But it’s not.

It’s much more frightening than that.

The attempt to smear these nonpartisan civil servants is part of a long-running attempt by Trump and his allies to delegitimize the entire concept of a non-partisan civil service.

It’s a project that stems both from Trump’s obsession with loyalty combined with his misguided belief that federal employees work for him, and from his administration’s goal to “deconstruct the administrative state.”

It began shortly after Trump was sworn in on January 20, 2017, when his allies in conservative media began complaining about “Obama holdovers” serving on the staff of the National Security Council, and in places like the Defense Department, State Department, and pretty much every other executive branch agency.

These “holdovers,” Trump allies said, were to blame for many of the president’s failures, and were part of a Democratic “deep state” working to frustrate Trump’s goals.

The problem with that, of course, is that there is no such thing as a “holdover” — at least not the way Trump and his allies mean.

It is possible for an agency official to be a holdover from a previous administration. When President Obama was preparing to take office in January 2009, he asked then-Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in his position.

Gates, a political appointee, was literally held over from the previous administration.

But that’s not what the term means to Trump and his allies.

To them, “holdovers” are the career civil servants and subject matter experts who keep the government running. Such people been a fixture in American government since 1883, when then-President Chester Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which created a competitive exam process for selecting government employees and made it illegal to fire them for political reasons.

Arthur was an unlikely booster for the idea of a professional civil service. He was a “stalwart,” part of a faction of the Republican Party that supported the “spoils” system, which gave the president — and the party controlling the White House — complete control of federal hiring. He was elected as James Garfield’s running mate to placate those Republicans who were concerned about Garfield’s potential for turning off the spoils system’s spigot of graft.

But the abundance of patronage jobs — and the president’s control over them — ended up costing Garfield his life in September 1881, months after he’d been shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a mentally ill man who’d attacked Garfield in a Washington, D.C. train station because he’d been denied the job of consul to Vienna or Paris.

The horror of Garfield’s assassination galvanized public support for a civil service bill, and Arthur — who’d been the subject of unfounded suspicions after his name was invoked by Garfield’s assassin — signed it.

Since then, nonpartisan civil servants have been a fact of life for presidents.

Most have understood that the career professionals who staff the executive branch departments have a vital function.

But not Trump.

For Trump, having served in government during Barack Obama’s presidency is enough to cast suspicion on any federal employee, and his suspicion of career professionals has extended throughout the executive branch.

At agencies large and small, policy planning meetings are routinely restricted to political appointees, and some policies — like the proposed (and dead-in-the-water) merger between the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration — have been designed to give the White House more control over hiring.

Many of those policies have not come to fruition, but the goal of getting rid of “disloyal” employees has now become an article of faith for Trump defenders.

A Senate trial will give Republicans yet more reasons to attack career professionals as disloyal.

The next election will determine whether punishment for “disloyalty” will become more than a conservative pipe dream.

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Russian Lies

Trump Still Wants Putin Back In G-7, Lies Repeatedly About Why Russia Was Suspended

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WASHINGTON, August 20, 2019 — President Trump on Tuesday said he’d support allowing the G-7 to become the G-8 again by allowing Russia to rejoin the annual summit held by the leaders of the world’s seven largest advanced economies.

Speaking in the Oval Office alongside Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Trump repeatedly lied about how long Russia had been participating in the annual summit before its 2014 suspension from what had been the Group of Eight, as well as the reasons for the suspension.

“So it was the G8 for a long time, and now it’s the G7, and a lot of the time, we talk about Russia,” said Trump, who then suggested that it “would be much more appropriate to have Russia in” and return to the G-8 format.

“It should be the G-8 because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia,” he said. “So I could certainly see it being the G8 again, and if somebody would make that motion, I would certainly be disposed to think about it very favorable.”

Trump also falsely attributed Russia’s non-participation to nothing more than spite on the part of his predecessor, rather than a consequence of Russia illegally invading and occupying part of Ukraine.

“I guess President Obama, because Putin outsmarted him, President Obama thought it wasn’t a good thing to have Russia in. So he wanted Russia out,” he said.

None of the claims Trump made about Russia and the G-8 have any basis in reality.

Although he claimed that Russia had participated “for a long time,” the G-7 summit existed for more than two decades before Russia first became involved.

The first edition of what would become an annual affair took place in 1975, when the leaders of the world’s top six International Monetary Fund-ranked industrialized economies — France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — met in France.

Canada joined what had been known as the Group of 6 a year later, after which the annual meeting would be known as the Group of 7, or G-7, for the next 19 years.

Russia’s involvement dates back to 1994, when Russian officials met with G-7 leaders at a series of separate meetings after that year’s summit had concluded.

Boris Yeltsin, then President of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, attended the next three meetings as a guest, and in 1998, Russia became a full member of would then be known as the Group of Eight. The invitation was extended in spite of that country’s comparatively insignificant position among the world’s industrialized economies as a way to encourage Yeltsin’s efforts to transition Russia away from the Soviet model to a market economy.

Trump’s claim that Russia’s suspension was initiated by then-President Barack Obama is also false.

The suspension began in March 2014, a month after Russian forces invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. As a result of the invasion, which has been widely condemned by the international community, the leaders of what had been the Group of Seven canceled plans to attend that year’s G-8 summit — which Putin had been set to host.

While the assertion that subjects having to do with Russia are routinely discussed at the G-7 level is correct, those discussions most often concern efforts by the G-7 nations — six of which are NATO members — to counter Russian aggression.

Although the international community holds Putin responsible for Russia’s occupation of its neighbor, Trump has previously lied about his culpability and attempted to place the blame on Obama to justify allowing Russia to rejoin the G-8.

During a question-and-answer session with reporters last June, Trump said Putin “should be in the G8” and repeatedly accused Obama of having “lost Crimea.”

“President Obama lost Crimea because President Putin didn’t respect President Obama, didn’t respect our country, and didn’t respect Ukraine,” he said.

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