Political News

White House stonewalls Capitol Hill over records in Russia probe

Posted September 25

Tension is rising between congressional investigators probing Russia meddling and the Trump administration, as the White House and Justice Department withhold a number of records sought by Capitol Hill at a critical time in the investigations.

Operating on parallel tracks from special counsel Robert Mueller, the three congressional committees probing Russia's election meddling have asked for scores of documents related to everything from Jared Kushner's security clearance to records surrounding President Donald Trump's discussions with James Comey before he was fired as FBI director.

At the same time, the GOP leader of the House intelligence committee is threatening to hold a public hearing this week over documents the Justice Department has so far failed to turn over to Capitol Hill regarding the FBI's ties to a British operative who compiled a dossier of allegations on Trump's connections with Russia.

And the GOP-led Senate judiciary committee is in a growing standoff with the Justice Department's deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, over several issues, including the department's decision to prevent two senior FBI officials from sitting down for transcribed interviews on Capitol Hill to provide eyewitness accounts of the Comey firing.

While the Trump campaign has provided lawmakers with thousands of pages of documents thus far, there are numerous requests where the White House, FBI and Justice Department have missed the committees' deadlines, prompting some committee members to threaten to issue subpoenas to the West Wing and Justice Department.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told CNN on Saturday that the White House has "refused" since June to comply with the panel's bipartisan request for documents over Trump's conversations with Comey -- "despite repeated attempts" to obtain the information.

"The White House's refusal to answer Congress in full and truthfully raises serious questions about the White House's intent, including the potential that it is misleading Congress," Schiff said in an email. "The White House must fully comply immediately; if it does not, the Committee should, on a bipartisan basis, subpoena the records."

A spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, who is leading the House intelligence committee Russia investigation, did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House did not comment when asked about its standoff with Congress over the Russia documents. Trump and White House officials have denied there was any collusion with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, with the President calling the inquiries a "witch hunt."

It's not unusual for the executive branch to ignore requests from Capitol Hill over records requests -- something that far predates the Trump administration.

But the resistance now to providing key documents could limit the key congressional committees' abilities to learn the extent of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign -- as well as whether Trump acted improperly by seeking to fire Comey to quash an FBI probe into Russian election meddling.

Complicating matters further is Mueller's probe, which has ramped up in aggressiveness and has broadened to examine Trump's White House.

Mueller has asked for an array of documents from the White House, including documents and emails relating to the dismissals of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Comey, as well as Trump's Oval Office meeting with senior Russian officials in which he said Comey's firing eased pressure on the White House, sources have told CNN.

Of particular concern to Capitol Hill are comments made by White House special counsel Ty Cobb, who was overheard in a lunch conversation by a New York Times reporter suggesting he wouldn't cooperate with Capitol Hill.

"If we give it to Mueller, there is no reason for it to ever get to the Hill," Cobb was reported as saying.

A White House official said Cobb has no involvement with congressional inquiries, and that the decision on whether to comply with Hill requests is one left to the White House counsel's office, run by Don McGahn.

Earlier this year, well before Mueller was tapped as special counsel, White House lawyers instructed aides to preserve documents and other materials that could be related to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

There are several unfilled requests for documents from the White House already, and the list is likely to grow as the congressional probes heat up this fall.

The House intelligence committee request stems from Trump's suggestion earlier this year there were tapes of his conversations with Comey. The panel asked McGahn for any "recordings or memoranda" related to their conversations, and the White House did respond with a letter stating there were no tapes that existed, citing a Trump tweet.

But that didn't satisfy the House Russia investigators. Conaway and Schiff issued a June 29 statement that their initial request had only been partially met, and they asked again for the White House "to appropriately and fully comply" with the request, which is still outstanding.

Rep. Devin Nunes, who stepped aside from leading the committee's Russia probe over concerns about his own handling of classified information, is running a parallel investigation into alleged "unmasking" of Trump officials by the Obama administration.

Earlier this month, Nunes pushed back a deadline for the FBI and Justice Department to produce documents about the FBI's relationship with the former British agent Christopher Steele, who produced a dossier of allegations -- some details of which have been substantiated, but others have not -- about Trump ties to Russia. He warned he would haul Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray before the committee if his requests were not met.

But the second deadline set for this past Friday came and went.

The panel has now scheduled a Thursday hearing for "document production" related to the subpoena, which could lead to a public showdown between the California Republican and the DOJ and FBI.

A Nunes spokesman declined to comment. A Justice Department spokesperson said: "Discussions with the committee are ongoing, and we have asked that the subpoenas that had compliance dates for (Friday) continue to be on hold during that process."

The scrutiny on the Justice Department also extends to the Senate side. The Justice Department has not responded to some key requests from the Senate Judiciary Committee, including a June request by Sens. Chuck Grassley, the committee chairman, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, to detail whether the US government sought to spy on any Trump associates during the last election season.

In particular, what has irked Grassley and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is the Justice Department's decision not to allow two senior FBI officials, James Rybicki and Carl Ghattas, to interview with the panel about the Comey firing. The department has said it's up to Mueller's team to decide whether to allow them to come forward, something it has not done so far.

Discussions with Rosenstein are supposed to continue this week, sources said.

"We've got subpoenas at the Senate counsel office," Grassley told CNN last week, referring to the Senate office that would draft the subpoenas. "When we get done there, I'm gonna have to consult with Sen. Feinstein."

Moreover, the White House has ignored a July deadline to respond to a series of questions related to Kushner, the President's son-in-law, about his application forms to get his security clearance -- something that had to be repeatedly amended because of his failure to list meetings with foreign officials, including Russians.

Among the questions the judiciary committee leaders have asked: Whether any White House official intervened during the background check process on Kushner's behalf and whether he has any "continuing contact" with a foreign national.

Kushner's attorneys have responded to the committee, citing in large measure his public statement insisting his mistakes were innocent and his meetings with Russians were innocuous. But the White House has not answered the questions raised by GOP and Democratic leaders of the committee, according to committee officials.

The Kushner security clearance form also has come under sharp scrutiny from Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee. Along with the other Democrats on the panel, Cummings requested a response by July 5 about omissions on Kushner's security clearance and whether he should continue to access classified information. They have yet to receive a response, according to Cummings' office.

Cummings has pushed for a range of documents, including on Flynn and Comey, but has not received responses from the White House on those matters either. Lacking support from the GOP chairman of the committee, Trey Gowdy, who wants to pursue the issues through the House intelligence committee, Cummings is unable to issue subpoenas for such records.

Yet the previous chairman of the House Oversight committee, then Rep. Jason Chaffetz, did sign onto a March request asking for documents related to the Flynn vetting process. But the White House sent an April letter suggesting that such information would not be forthcoming, and Republicans on the panel did not pursue the matter after that.

Senate Intelligence committee officials refused to say if they've made any requests for documents from the White House that are still outstanding.

But committee Chairman Richard Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner said in May they would request a briefing from the White House on what was said in the meeting that month between Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak

Warner also told CNN in July that the committee had requested more records from Kushner, as well as Donald Trump Jr., following the revelation of their June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer.

A spokeswoman for Burr did not respond to a request for comment, and a Warner spokeswoman declined to comment.

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