AP NEWS

Democrats’ demand for access to Russian translator denied

March 22, 2019

The White House on Thursday rejected congressional Democrats’ demand for access to the translator present for President Trump’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, leaving top committee chairmen fuming.

White House Counsel Pat A. Cipollone said demanding to pry into diplomatic talks goes beyond the powers of Congress and called it particularly unseemly when being done “for partisan political purposes.”

Reps. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the Oversight Committee, Eliot Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Adam Schiff, chairman of the intelligence committee, said the rejection was “troubling,” and suggested they were preparing for a major constitutional showdown.

“We will be consulting on appropriate next steps,” they said in a joint statement. “Congress has a constitutional duty to conduct oversight and investigate these matters, and we will fulfill that responsibility.”

The exchange came the same day Mr. Cummings revealed that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and elder daughter, Ivanka Trump, are conducting government business in ways that seem to violate presidential records laws.

Mr. Kushner has communicated with foreign leaders using a messaging application WhatsApp, Mr. Cummings said, basing his conclusions on information from a lawyer for Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump. It was unclear whether Mr. Kushner traded classified information across the app. If he did, it would be “a major security breach,” Mr. Cummings said.

Ms. Trump, meanwhile, still gets government business emails on her personal account and doesn’t always forward them to an official account, Mr. Cummings said in a letter to the White House legal team. He said that violates the law regarding storage of presidential records.

The revelations are particularly embarrassing for the president, who during the 2016 campaign called for the jailing of Hillary Clinton over her own use of a private email account and server to exchange top secret information.

Mr. Cummings has been trying get more information about the Trump White House’s practices, but says he’s run into a brick wall.

“The White House’s failure to provide documents and information is obstructing the committee’s investigation into allegations of violations of federal records laws by White House officials,” he wrote in a letter to the White House legal team.

He suggested the panel had other ways to demand the information, if the White House won’t turn documents over voluntarily.

Steven Groves, a White House spokesman, said they had received Mr. Cummings’ letter.

“As with all properly authorized oversight requests, the White House will review the letter and will provide a reasonable response in due course,” he said.

The bigger fight, however, is likely to come over the request for access to information about Trump-Putin dealings.

Democrats have been itching to get a sense for those communications after it was revealed the two men held a one-on-one meeting last summer in Finland with only translators present.

The meeting lasted two hours, and the U.S. translator’s notes were then reportedly confiscated.

The Democratic chairmen, in their requests earlier this year, asked to speak to the translator, and also asked to speak with any else who was briefed orally or in writing about the meetings. They also asked for all documents produced surrounding the talks.

Mr. Cipollone, the White House lawyer, said Supreme Court precedent and past White House practices have generally shielded diplomatic efforts from such congressional demands.

“With all respect, the Constitution assigns the president the role of charting the course of U.S. foreign policy and determining which diplomatic communications advance the national interest,” he wrote in a letter to the chairmen. “Policy disagreements with the president’s decisions on those matters do not create a legislative right to review the president’s diplomatic communications with foreign leaders.”

He said he’s willing to talk about reaching an accommodation but hasn’t sensed that Democrats are interested in talking.

He said in their original letter, the chairmen had promised staffers from their committees “will jointly schedule a meeting with the White House counsel shortly to discuss this request.”

More than two weeks later, Mr. Cipollone said, he’s heard nothing.