News Roundup: The First Real Confrontation Between the Trump Administration and Congressional Oversight

The struggle between House Democrats and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker over his appearance before the Judiciary Committee finally culminated in his first oversight hearing on Friday, but a new battle over the executive branch’s obligation to answer lawmakers’ questions is likely to take off this year.

Committee members questioned the acting attorney general on his conversations with the president about Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference, as well as Justice Department civil rights policy, his previous employment, and his department’s involvement in the administration’s family-separation policy. Whitaker frequently evaded questions and delayed his answers, but he did testify that he has not interfered with the special counsel investigation and that he has not taken a Trump loyalty oath.

There are still many open and unanswered questions, many of which American Oversight has been investigating. And it remains to be seen how Whitaker and the rest of the administration will approach the issue of executive privilege. Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler was prepared today, having sent Whitaker his questions weeks in advance in an effort to preclude Whitaker from trying the same strategy that his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, had used to avoid answering Congress’ questions. (Only the president can invoke executive privilege, but Sessions claimed he needed to check with the president to see if Trump wanted to invoke it. Of course, Sessions said the same thing months later when asked questions on the same subject.) Nadler also promised to bring him back for a deposition to ensure Congress gets the information it needs.

Meanwhile on Friday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee launched an investigation into the “Mar-a-Lago crowd’s” influence on policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs. American Oversight last year began investigating the trio of Trump friends who frequent his Florida club, looking into their involvement in a multibillion-dollar contract to overhaul the department’s electronic records system.

House committees are scheduling more hearings every week, and the administration blamed its slow response to congressional oversight requests on the 35-day partial government shutdown. During his Tuesday night State of the Union address, Trump warned Congress to not investigate his administration. Lawmakers don’t appear to be paying that warning any mind, and neither is American Oversight:

  • ProPublica published a story about how Colony Capital — the company founded by Trump friend Tom Barrack, who was later hired to run the 2017 inauguration — planned to profit off its relationship with the administration and foreign diplomats. American Oversight obtained calendars that show Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin meeting at least three times with Colony executives in the months after the inauguration, including an April 2017 meeting in a private restaurant room with ambassadors of multiple Middle Eastern countries, as well as with Barrack and campaign aide Rick Gates.
  • Months before Scott Pruitt stepped down as EPA administrator in a swarm of ethics scandals — such as allegations of him using taxpayer funds for personal expenses — he had already begun raising money for his legal defense fund. Donations included $50,000 from Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks, the receipt of which was a possible violation of ethics rules. American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request for agency communications with Hendricks and outside entities.
  • Another scandal-plagued cabinet secretary, Ryan Zinke, stepped down as interior secretary days before the new Congress was sworn in. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, took over as acting secretary, and this week Trump indicated that he would nominate Bernhardt as Zinke’s permanent replacement. American Oversight has multiple active FOIA requests out on Bernhardt’s communications with industry groups, and this week filed a request for his office’s communications regarding climate change.
  • American Oversight is also seeking information about outside entities’ influence on policy at the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. Jeffrey Bossert Clark, the new ENRD head, is a former British Petroleum attorney and a critic of climate change policy, and replaced Jeffrey Wood, a former coal lobbyist who is now the principal deputy attorney general. The FOIA requests also cover industry communications with Brandon Middleton, a former ENRD counsel who is now the deputy solicitor of water resources at the Department of the Interior and was an outspoken critic of the Endangered Species Act. 
  • Earlier this week, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against the administration for records related to the decision to keep open the Old Post Office tower — a National Park Service site attached to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. — during the 35-day partial government shutdown. The president still holds a financial stake in the hotel, and despite various statements from the General Services Administration, which manages the building, it remains unclear what the reasoning was for using federal funding to keep the tower open.
  • Other FOIAs: We want to know more about how conservative donor Boyden Gray — the former ambassador to the European Union and White House counsel during the first Bush administration — has influenced policy across the Trump administration; we’re also seeking communications casino magnate Steve Wynn had with the Departments of Justice and Labor.