WASHINGTON — A Republican senator told President Donald Trump it’s “nonsense” that the administration believes it can ignore requests for information from individual members of Congress, including Democrats.
Democrats have criticized the administration’s recent interpretation of its obligations when it comes to answering queries from Congress. A legal opinion issued by the Justice Department on May 1 said the authority for official inquiries of executive branch programs and activities may be exercised only by the full Republican-led House or Senate, committees and subcommittees, or their chairmen. Individual requests do not “trigger any obligation” for the administration to accommodate, according to the opinion.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats have a right to be upset. In a letter to Trump released Friday, Grassley said the president is “being ill-served and ill-advised” on the obligation for providing agency information to lawmakers.
Grassley said that unless Congress explicitly tells the executive branch to withhold information based on committee membership or leadership position, then there is no legal or constitutional basis for doing so.
“Shutting down oversight requests doesn’t drain the swamp, Mr. President. It floods the swamp,” Grassley said.
The tension between lawmakers and the executive branch over requests for information occurs no matter who is president. Hardly a hearing goes by without a lawmaker reminding an agency chief of an outstanding request for information. But that tension has certainly grown with Trump in the White House. Recent inquiries from Democratic lawmakers that have gone unanswered, according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, include:
—A letter from Sens. Tom Carper and Claire McCaskill seeking information from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about security concerns stemming from Trump’s “reported use of his personal, unofficial smartphone.”
—A letter from Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Tom Udall seeking from the president the list of members at the Trump Organization’s Mar-a-Lago Golf Club in Florida.
—A letter from six Democratic senators to White House counsel Don McGahn and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt pushing for answers on the role that businessman Carl Ichan is playing in shaping policy.
In all, Schumer listed 102 inquiries that he says have gone unanswered. He thanked Grassley for stepping in.
“We believe the administration has a responsibility to be responsive to oversight requests regardless of party,” Schumer said.
The legal memo spelling out obligations was provided to White House attorneys by Curtis Gannon, acting assistant attorney general. It states that the executive branch has historically exercised discretion in determining whether and how to respond to requests from individual lawmakers.
“In general, agencies have provided information only when doing so would not be overly burdensome and would not interfere with their ability to respond in a timely manner to duly authorized oversight requests,” Gannon wrote.