The Trump administration has tried to delay answering some unwelcome questions from eager House investigators — and it says the just-ended government shutdown is to blame.
The 35-day partial shutdown depleted the White House’s staff, furloughing many lower-level employees who help with requests. They include legal assistants who compile documents and IT workers who search vast email archives. Senior aides who remained at work during the standoff with Congress were overwhelmed with other priorities and unable to pick up the slack, according to people familiar with the situation.
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And because of the staff furloughs, lawyers and officials involved in the White House’s legislative affairs office — which handles much of the oversight response load — were forced to take turns at their desks, working a few days at a time before being sent home.
The shutdown also slowed down work at many of the Trump departments and agencies from which Congressional Democrats are demanding documents, email and testimony. The White House typically reviews all oversight requests sent to federal departments and agencies.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of the shutdown’s impact on the administration’s oversight compliance came in a Jan. 11 letter from the Department of Homeland Security to the House Committee on Homeland Security. The letter, sent by the department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs and obtained by POLITICO, explained that “the furlough has greatly limited our response to inquiries” about the separation of migrant families at the southern border. It added that the department “will respond more thoroughly as soon as possible.”
Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker tried to delay testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee — which is eager to speak to him about the investigation into whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election — until two weeks after the shutdown. (Whitaker struck a deal with Democrats last month to testify on Feb. 8.)
Democrats and even some Republicans expressed skepticism about such claims, which they predict will continue even after the shutdown is over, saying the Trump administration is looking for reasons to delay its responses to the House.
“We are concerned that the Administration is using the shutdown as an excuse to slow roll their responses to our reasonable requests,” said a Democratic staffer. “Congress’ oversight role is crystal clear. Just because the Administration is not used to rigorous oversight does not excuse not being prepared for it, even after a shutdown.”
After two years of Republicans largely protecting the Trump administration, House Democrats are eager to use their new powers to subpoena documents and force administration officials to testify about dozens of issues ranging from White House aides using private email for government business to the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Sam Berger, an attorney who worked at the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration helping agencies understand how to apply the law during shutdowns, accused the Trump administration selectively — and illegally — picking which activities could proceed during the budget standoff. The administration called back workers to process tax refunds, but there is no evidence that any workers were tapped to comply with congressional oversight, an action that would have been legal, Berger said.
Berger called that evidence that the administration’s shutdown planning was “driven by politics, not the law.” “When legal requirements have damaging political consequences, they break them,” he said. “When the consequences are helpful, they suddenly decide the rules must be followed.”
Now that the shutdown is over, at least for now, the administration will have no obvious excuse to delay its oversight compliance, including the famously laborious work of reviewing and providing documents demanded by Congress. (In what members of both parties call the unlikely event that the government partially closes again in three weeks, the excuses could renew.)
Most documents congressional investigators request from the White House or agencies are electronic — either emails or documents stored on a computer. They are typically first reviewed by lower-level staffers, such as paralegals and IT techs, said a former attorney in the Obama White House familiar with congressional requests. “Everything is on computers,” the lawyer said. Senior aides will review the package after its compiled.
Austin Evers, former senior counsel in State Department who is now executive director of American Oversight, a group founded to hold the Trump administration accountable, urged Congress to use its subpoena power if needed to ensure the administration does not engage in obstruction.
The White House did not respond to questions for this story.
But a former Trump administration official who is now at a major lobbying group that helped companies navigate the shutdown, defended the White House.
“There is no doubt that the shutdown slowed down or outright halted basic functions at the affected agencies,” the official said. “But if they aren’t missing deadlines then this is just grandstanding from Democrats who will never be satisfied with anything the administration does. If Democrats wanted more timely responses than they should have stayed in Washington to help re-open the government.”
When Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, they largely protected the Trump White House from having to turn over documents — a common practice when both branches of government are controlled by the same party.
But even once it became clear that Democrats would likely take over the House last fall, Trump aides were slow to hire lawyers and other staffers to fully prepare for the onslaught of investigations now descending upon them. They were also slow to take steps such as warning aides to retain personal attorneys and research sensitive issues, according to Republicans close to the administration.
House committees have sent numerous document requests to the White House and federal agencies since the Democrats took control of the chamber earlier this month but, in most cases, the deadlines to respond have not passed.
Those requests go directly to individual departments or agencies, where they are reviewed both by the office’s general counsel and legislative teams, according to people familiar with the process. The responses are then generally sent to the counsel’s office and Cabinet Affairs offices at the White House, they said.
The White House is asked to review any congressional request sent to a federal agency that pertains to any of its staff or issues, according to a long-standing practice that dates from the Ronald Reagan presidency.
Yet this month, as the shutdown dragged on, the White House was operating with just a fraction of its usual staff — most of whom were spending time trying to strike a deal with Congress that would have given Trump money for a border and re-opened the government.
Only 156 of 359 staffers remained at what is called the White House Office during the shutdown, according to a memo issued by the Office of Management and Budget. Generally, those that remain are the highest-ranking staffers — assistants to the president, deputy assistant to the president and special assistants to the president.
During the shutdown, committees launched investigations into everything from the easing of sanctions on businesses tied to a Russian oligarch to the federal government’s lease with the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
Every House committee is likely to launch their own investigation and the House could even form a special committee to look into a specific issue.
It’s main investigatory committee, the House Oversight Committee, has already sent two requests so far. On Jan. 3 the committee requested payments Trump made to his former attorney Michael Cohen, who was convicted and is cooperating with federal prosecutors. Last week it asked the White House for details about possible security clearance breaches.
They have not received responses yet.
Published at Tue, 29 Jan 2019 10:01:59 +0000