By: The Washington Post , Rachael Bade, Karoun Demirjian, Ellen Nakashima, and Philip Rucker//March 5, 2019
By: The Washington Post , Rachael Bade, Karoun Demirjian, Ellen Nakashima, and Philip Rucker//March 5, 2019//
WASHINGTON – House Democrats’ far-reaching document request seeking information from President Donald Trump’s sons, his business associates and his political confidants opened a sprawling investigation Monday and cast a spotlight on the ambitious strategy of the committee with the authority to impeach a president.
The House Judiciary Committee sent more than 80 letters demanding all communications from a host of controversies surrounding Trump, as the panel probes whether the president and his administration have engaged in obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power.
But rather than a targeted approach, Monday’s request was broad, reaching current and former campaign staffers, top Trump Organization officials, even documents and communications of the National Rifle Association and the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The inquiry touched on a wide array of matters, from the president’s business dealings with Russia to the firing of former FBI director James Comey to hush payments made to women. Many of those issues are already being examined by special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York – not to mention other committees in the House.
“We will act quickly to gather this information, assess the evidence, and follow the facts where they lead with full transparency with the American people,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “This is a critical time for our nation, and we have a responsibility to investigate these matters and hold hearings for the public to have all the facts. That is exactly what we intend to do.”
The extensive scope could bolster claims by Trump and Republicans that congressional Democrats are seeking to undermine the president and cripple his 2020 reelection effort rather than conduct a disciplined, fact-finding inquiry.
At an event at the White House with the North Dakota State University championship football team, Trump was asked if he plans to cooperate.
“I cooperate all the time with everybody,” he said, adding: “You know the beautiful thing – no collusion. It’s all a hoax.”
The president also spent the day retweeting his supporters who criticized the document request as “ridiculous” or called Democrats “sore losers” in the 2016 election.
The vast range of the request raised the specter of unfocused inquiries that could last years and involve multiple committees competing for witnesses and documents.
“The scope of the Democrats’ race to find something bad on this president is getting more and more concerning. . . . Where are they willing to stop? I don’t know what they’re trying to do or where they’re trying to go,” said Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
At the White House, Trump and his aides vowed publicly to cooperate with the congressional oversight and review the request from Nadler. Privately, however, advisers dismissed the request as clear overreach and were preparing to push back against the committee’s demands. One aide described Nadler’s request as a political ploy orchestrated to cover ground that already has been trod by other investigations, including Mueller’s probe of Russian election interference.
The White House has been preparing for aggressive congressional oversight for several months, adding more than a dozen lawyers, including some with experience working for congressional Republicans, to the White House Counsel’s Office this year.
The Trump team’s emerging strategy, which is being overseen by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone – with input from White House lawyer Emmet Flood, who has been leading the White House’s response to the Mueller investigation – is to focus on limiting the scope of investigations and preserving legal protections for the president.
The strategy includes asserting executive privilege whenever White House lawyers feel it is necessary to preserve confidentiality, but their first instinct is to be cooperative in responding to requests when warranted, according to people with knowledge of internal discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Democrats, meanwhile, say they’re ready to subpoena the information if needed, all but ensuring an intergovernmental clash in the coming weeks. Recipients – be they individuals, companies or government agencies – have two weeks to comply with the requests. Should they fail to do so, the panel will compel the information forcefully, a committee lawyer told reporters on a call Monday morning.
For months, House Democrats said they would look to Mueller’s findings to determine whether to proceed with impeachment hearings. But Nadler’s request demonstrates that Democrats are preparing to probe well beyond Russia’s interference in the election.
Those receiving letters from the House Judiciary Committee include the president’s two eldest sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his former personal secretary and senior vice president of the Trump Organization, Rhona Graff; Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization; and former top White House aides Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon.
Other demands for documents have been directed to institutions including the White House, the Justice Department, the Trump campaign, the Trump presidential transition team and the Trump Organization.
Nadler has said that the FBI probe is but a piece of Democrats’ oversight puzzle. And Judiciary Committee staff members said the requests underscored lawmakers’ determination to hold Trump and those around him accountable for an array of controversies that have dogged the president during his first two years in office – and perhaps lay the grounds for impeachment proceedings.
Dismissing criticism, Nadler told CNN, “We’re simply exercising our oversight jurisdiction.”
Still, the missives raised questions about the scope of Democrats’ inquiry, as well as which Democratic-led committees would be charged with investigating which controversies. About half a dozen House committees are probing Trump in some capacity. But while the chairmen meet regularly and have tried to pick lanes, they keep bumping into one another, overlap that could create problems in the future.
Hours after Nadler’s letters went public, for example, the chairmen of three committees asked acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for any documents on Trump’s interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nadler’s inquiries sought the same information.
A former assistant counsel on the Watergate investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, said it was tough to discern House Democrats’ strategy given the volume of the information they are seeking.
“I don’t know if they’re looking more to get into a confrontation or whether they’re actually looking for information,” the person said. “This is a lot of material. . . . You have to prioritize and decide what is most important and the best prospects of yielding something that is important and relevant.”
The individual added: “How do they go through all that material and even remember what they are looking for? . . . It’s a kitchen-sink kind of request that lawyers tend to use in cases where they know stuff is there, but they’re not quite sure where it is or what it is.”
A House Judiciary aide acknowledged overlap among document requests by the various House committees conducting investigations. But panel staff and leaders are huddling regularly to share notes and deconflict, the source said. Over time, the aide said, different committees will take the lead on certain issues. And Judiciary intends to share its document findings with the relevant panels, one committee staffer said.
“The important thing is that the investigations are staying out of each other’s way and we’re also helping each other,” the aide said.
Phil Schiliro, who worked under former Oversight and Reform Committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and in President Barack Obama’s White House, said the panel is “approaching it the right way” and “not getting ahead of the facts.” The sheer number of the scandals encompassing the White House justifies the long list of requests, he argued. “No Congress – no group of reporters – has ever had to deal with something like this before,” he said.
The inquiries encompass issues from the campaign’s data operation and Cambridge Analytica to Michael Cohen’s post-election consulting contract with Columbus Nova, a U.S.-based investment vehicle for Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg. They include requests about well-known episodes, like the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer, and far-less-covered incidents, such as a 2016 effort by Peter Smith, a now-deceased Chicago-based Republican fundraiser, to reach out to Russian hackers to get copies of Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails.
Inquiries also went out to Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale; former 2016 campaign officials such as Corey Lewandowski; former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus; and former White House counsel Donald McGahn. Nadler also asked American Media Inc. and its chief executive, David Pecker, a longtime Trump ally, about hush payments or “any payment” made by Cohen, then Trump’s personal lawyer, to assist Trump during the campaign. Nadler asked AMI as well about any times in recent years it has had to “catch and kill” an unflattering story or allegation about Trump – a term for keeping such a story buried.
The committee said Monday’s tranche of requests would not be the last, suggesting that investigations by House Democrats could become broader still with time. For instance, panel staffers expect that Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump will receive a document request in the coming weeks. She did not receive one Monday.
Judiciary Committee staff argue that there is a constitutional question about whether the party can hold Trump accountable for any illicit or morally questionable activities he may have committed before he became president.
The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman, John Wagner and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.