Democratic lawmakers press oversight of Trump administration
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. Elijah Cummings’ letter Wednesday revealing a whistle-blower’s account of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s efforts to participate in a Russia-linked business project underscores a running story line in a host of controversies that have engulfed the White House.
Since Donald Trump’s first week as president, Maryland Democratic lawmakers have been at the forefront of a widespread effort to hold the administration accountable for potentially illegal or unethical behavior, possible conflicts of interest, questionable travel practices, and contacts with Russians during and since last year’s presidential election.
The Democratic members of the state’s delegation have authored or co-authored more than 100 letters to the White House, federal agencies, government auditors and inspectors general, according to an analysis conducted by Capital News Service.
However, largely because of the Democrats’ status as the minority political party in Congress, little has come so far from the oversight efforts.
Cummings, D-Baltimore, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent the majority of letters, including some bipartisan efforts that were co-signed by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina.
On Wednesday, Cummings sent to Gowdy an account by an unnamed whistle-blower detailing how Flynn texted a former business associate from the inaugural platform - 11 minutes after Trump was sworn in - that the way would be clear for Flynn to participate in Russian partnership to nuclear power plants in the Middle East.
The project, Flynn allegedly texted, was “good to go.” A Flynn business associate also told the whistle-blower that Flynn assured him that sanctions against Russia would be “ripped up” by the new administration.
“Our Committee has credible allegations that President Trump’s National Security Advisor sought to manipulate the course of international nuclear policy for the financial gain of his former business partners,” Cummings wrote to his committee chairman. “These grave allegations compel a full, credible, and bipartisan congressional investigation.”
The role of the House oversight panel is to investigate any federal agency or department of the U.S. government and the executive branch that is deemed by the committee to be engaging in questionable or unconstitutional activities.
But Cummings and other Democrats are frustrated that, in many cases, they cannot convince their GOP colleagues to join in requests to dig deeper into a wide variety of issues raised during the first year of the Trump administration.
“In my opinion, House Republicans are aiding and abetting President Trump’s ongoing abuses,” Cummings said at a Capitol Hill press conference in November. “Republicans are essentially walling off President Trump from credible congressional oversight, which is our job we are sworn to do.”
The dozens of letters sent by Maryland’s Democratic House members and two senators mainly focused on three topic areas: alleged conflicts of interest within the president’s family and business, unusual administration travel practices and campaign and White House activities in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Here are some examples of additional letters:
# On Oct. 31, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, and five fellow Democratic representatives sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, requesting that he make sure Trump didn’t dismiss Special Counsel Robert Mueller after indicting former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
# All seven Maryland House Democrats joined a bipartisan letter in March asking the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, and the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, to submit a written request to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for copies of 10 years of Trump’s tax returns.
# In May, Maryland Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen joined 16 other senators in a letter Office and Management Budget Director Mick Mulvaney asking that ethics waivers in the executive branch be released to the public. The senators told Mulvaney that the White House response suggested “that rather than working with Congress to ensure the highest ethical standards in the Trump administration, you are willing to take whatever steps you can to hide potential conflicts of interest from view.”
# Cummings and the former House oversight panel chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, sent a bipartisan letter in February asking Walter Schaub, then the director of the Office of Government Ethics, to review the possible ethical violations behind presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway’s endorsement of presidential daughter Ivanka Trump’s clothing line and ensure appropriate disciplinary actions be brought. They received two letters in response, but Cummings’ office did not release the responses.
# Cummings and four senators sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth, asking for a report on the Secret Service’s ability to protect the first family, given the many properties they frequent. Roth responded but the letter has not yet been made public.
# Cummings and Gowdy also requested additional information on private email use in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Sept. 25.
Despite the deadlines for requests in almost all of the letters sent since January, Democratic members on the oversight committee indicated that they haven’t received responses to most of their queries.
“Unfortunately, the administration has essentially stopped responding to Democrats,” Matthew Verghese, a spokesman for Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Upper Marlboro, said in an email.
The White House apparently doesn’t believe it has to answer, a position that not only upsets congressional Democrats but also open-government advocates.
The acting assistant attorney general, Curtis Gannon, released a legal opinion in May that essentially said the executive branch is only obligated to respond to requests from Republican committee chairmen or a full committee.
Reps. Raskin, Cummings and John Sarbanes, D-Towson, responded with other Democratic colleagues in a June letter to the General Services Administration, condemning the withholding of information.
“Although you may wish to limit oversight from Democratic members of Congress through a misguided policy that responds only to Republican chairmen, compliance with federal law is not an optional exercise that may be overridden by a new Trump administration policy,” the congressmen insisted.
John Wonderlich, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates government transparency, called the counsel’s opinion “evasive, dismissive and condescending towards the role of the first branch.”
“Because they don’t have a particularly coherent or well-thought-out approach to governing, oversight is a pretty big inconvenience,” Wonderlich told Capital News Service. “They’re avoiding feeding any press narratives or congressional oversight. It’s a hostile approach to the checks and balances that are central to our system of government.”
Wonderlich added that although there is always some sort of tension between the administration and oversight committees, the executive branch has historically been responsive to bipartisan requests. Under the Trump administration, many of the bipartisan letters are also left ignored, he said.
Aaron Scherb, the director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, an independent watchdog organization, said that the administration is trying to politicize government information. He said that the best course of action is to keep attempting to hold the administration in check.
“The American public and taxpayers deserve to know what information the White House has and potentially is withholding,” Sherb said. “Continuing to put public pressure on the White House is the most effective method of trying to obtain that information.”
Cummings and Gowdy sent several letters in September and October, requesting records regarding non-elected executive officials and non-career officials at federal departments and agencies using government-owned aircraft.
The two lawmakers also sent detailed questions about extensive government travel to Tom Price, the then-secretary of health and services. Price resigned three days later, after news broke that he had accumulated $400,000 in travel bills for chartered flights.
Cummings also has signed letters requesting more information about Trump’s campaign and possible collusion involving members of his administration, including son-in-law Jared Kushner and Flynn, with Russian officials.
One of the letters from Cummings was sent to then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, requesting information about security clearances for Flynn and Kushner. More specifically, Democrats wanted to know why Flynn and Kushner had not had their clearances suspended during the investigation of their interactions with Russia.
Gowdy said in June that he planned to steer the committee away from the investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, while Cummings insisted the issue still must investigated more.
Other letters signed by Cummings concern Flynn’s trips to the Middle East and Russia, while others asked for a full briefing on Flynn’s communications with Russians during his time in the administration.
Cummings did receive responses to some letters, and requested additional follow-up information.
Maryland Reps. Raskin and John Delaney, D-Potomac, sent a letter, along with 51 other House members, asking why Trump’s son-in-law didn’t disclose his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak between April and November 2016.
The congressmen called for Kushner’s clearance to be revoked until a full investigation of that meeting was complete, but they didn’t receive a response to the letter.
At a Nov. 2 meeting of the House oversight panel, Cummings and some of his colleagues tried to advocate for subpoenas to get information on Flynn’s foreign contacts and other issues, but Gowdy balked.
Flynn’s possible involvement in building nuclear plants drew Cummings’ attention in November, when he sent separate letters to Robert McFarlane and Thomas Barrack, who both had conversations with Flynn about the proposed plants, asking to answer questions about their talks with Flynn.
“I understand the chairman personally may disagree with our efforts to conduct vigorous oversight of the executive branch - and in particular this White House. We get that,” Cummings told the committee. “But all of our committee members deserve the opportunity to debate and vote on these motions, rather than have him unilaterally blocking their consideration.”
“House rules provide for subpoenas to be issued by a vote of the full committee, and all we are asking for is the opportunity to do so,” Cummings said.
On the same day, Gowdy sent a letter to Cummings outlining his reasons for denying each subpoena.
“The subpoenas you described are inconsistent with a responsible investigative process,” the chairman wrote. “If you look at the committee’s - mostly bipartisan - work to date on these issues in full context, it is clear subpoenas are premature in each case.”
In addition to the dispute over subpoenas, Democratic members of the oversight committee have been pushing for more information about government officials - including Donald Trump Jr., Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump - using private emails to conduct official work. None of the three Trump family members have responded to direct letters.
As a presidential candidate and as president, Trump repeatedly has brought up Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s use of private emails when she was secretary of state.
In response to one Cummings letter, the White House said that officials were complying with the Presidential Records Act, which mandates a record be kept of all presidential and vice presidential matters.
Cummings followed up in October, asking FBI Director Christopher Wray to conduct an official investigation of White House officials using their private emails for government business. Wray did not respond to his letter.
Both Cardin and Van Hollen have raised questions about Trump’s potential business conflicts of interest. Along with 15 of their Democratic colleagues, the Maryland senators joined in a letter to The Trump Organization and the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust for answers about each entity’s financial relationship to the president.
“Our democratic institutions derive legitimacy and public confidence through transparency,” the senators wrote. “It is essential for the American people to know that the President’s decisions are not affected by his personal financial interest.”
Cummings also has sent requests on his own regarding travel of government officials.
One letter asked the then-acting Health and Human Services Secretary Don Wright and Mnuchin to send proof of any payment Price made to reimburse his private air travel, as Price had promised.
In another letter, Cummings asked Conway for information about her use of private, non-commercial or military flights, including flights she took with Price.
Wright and Mnuchin sent back responses about the request for proof of Tom Price’s payment. Conway did not respond.
The lack of responses to most of the letters has prompted Democratic House members to try to invoke the “Seven Member Rule,” which states an agency must answer a congressional request and comply if seven members ask for the same information. Requests under this rule still have been ignored, Cummings said.
“Let me make one thing clear about this authority, we sent a previous request under the same statute to the Obama administration, and they fully complied,” Cummings said. “Now that Donald Trump has been sworn in as president of the United States, his administration has reversed its legal position and refuses to recognize our authority under this 1928 statute.”