House Dems propose strengthening Congress’ contempt power to break administration stonewalls

House Democrats increasingly frustrated by the Trump administration for defying subpoenas are proposing legislation that would ratchet up their power to punish executive branch officials who reject their requests.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), and five other members of the House Judiciary Committee, unveiled a rule change Monday to formalize and expand Congress' power of "inherent contempt" — its authority to unilaterally punish anyone who defies a subpoena for testimony or documents.

Though Congress has long had inherent contempt power, it has been in disuse since before World War II. This power, upheld by courts, has included the ability to levy fines and even jail witnesses who refuse to cooperate with congressional demands.

But such extreme measures have fallen out of favor over the years, as Congress has relied instead primarily on litigation to enforce its subpoenas and officials across government have acknowledged the unappetizing prospect of using force to impose its will. It's even trickier when applied to a coequal branch of government, which may have its own privileges and protections to assert.

But calls for reviving inherent contempt have grown since Democrats reclaimed the House majority last year. Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee, in particular, have fumed as Trump administration witnesses defied their requests and subpoenas for testimony and documents related to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Lieu's measure is cosponsored by Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.).

“We've seen unprecedented and illegal obstruction by the Trump administration to Congress where the administration has essentially directed witnesses not to show up to committees even after they have been given lawful congressional subpoenas,” Lieu said in an interview. “We need an enforcement mechanism.”

Lieu's proposal only focuses on monetary penalties. It would establish a process for negotiations between Congress and executive branch officials when disputes arise over testimony and records. The measure would allow federal agencies to lodge objections to congressional requests, and it would permit the president to weigh in and assert any applicable privileges. The measure would also establish a process for holding recalcitrant officials in contempt, including hearings before the full House in which the subject would be permitted to present a defense and would face questions from lawmakers on the House floor.

If the House supports contempt after such a proceeding, it would then vote a second time to impose a financial penalty of up to $25,000. The penalty would be delayed for 20 days to allow for continued negotiations before subsequent penalties may be imposed up to an aggregate of $100,000. The measure would also bar taxpayer dollars from being used to cover any fines assessed through this mechanism.

Democrats say the measure is a crucial effort to formalize and reinvigorate Congress' long-dormant powers.

Lieu said he is hopeful to implement it quickly but at the very least would like it in future Congress’ toolbox. He said the prospect that inherent contempt would be abused by lawmakers is slim.

“The way to prevent it from being abused is pretty simple: the witness just shows up,” Lieu said.

Inherent contempt became the subject of multiple court fights between the House and President Donald Trump, who has fought congressional subpoenas for his tax returns and financial information.

In those cases, House counsel Doug Letter emphasized that if courts refused to resolve the disputes, it would leave Congress with a slim list of blunt tools to confront an executive branch that’s stonewalling lawmakers. Those tools, which include impeachment, defunding power and the ability to block presidential nominations, would also include — as a last resort — invoking inherent contempt and deploying the House's sergeant-at-arms to enforce the chamber's will. Such a scene would be unpalatable and increase government dysfunction, Letter argued.

Lawmakers are revisiting the issue of inherent contempt in particular as they've renewed their complaints about Attorney General Bill Barr's resistance to testifying before their panel.

Attorney General William Barr.

Barr has yet to appear before the committee since taking his post in February 2019, despite repeated attempts to arrange testimony. Most recently, Barr has agreed to appear on July 28, amid mounting controversies facing his Justice Department, though some Democrats are still doubtful he’ll appear.

Committee Democrats have demanded answers about his role in directing a forceful response to peaceful protests across the street from the White House at Lafayette Park shortly before a nearby Trump photo opportunity. They've also questioned his effort to replace the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan with a handpicked successor who would have sway over multiple investigations into Trump's associates and interests.

Lieu also cites the refusal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs chairman Mark Milley to testify about their roles in the law enforcement and military response to the D.C. protests. The House has also been tied up in court since last summer fighting for testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, who ignored a congressional subpoena on the matter. And several witnesses called by the House during last fall's impeachment proceedings also refused to appear, including then-chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and top White House national security lawyer John Eisenberg.

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Top Pompeo aide to testify about firing of State Dept. watchdog

A top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has agreed to testify to lawmakers next week about his role in the abrupt removal of former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, the House Foreign Affairs Committee announced Monday.

Brian Bulatao, the undersecretary of State for management, has emerged as a central figure in Linick’s ouster, which came as the watchdog was leading multiple investigations into Pompeo’s conduct. Linick told lawmakers that Bulatao — a longtime colleague and confidant of Pompeo’s since their days at West Point — had at times tried to “bully” him about the investigations, particularly a sensitive probe about Pompeo’s role in an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

Linick was also investigating Pompeo and his wife’s use of government resources for personal errands.

State Department aides have pushed back on suggestions that Pompeo or Bulatao acted improperly, alleging that Linick himself was the one acting improperly. Pompeo recently told reporters Linick was a “bad actor” in the department and wasn’t adequately fulfilling the role of inspector general.

Late Monday, the committee, in conjunction with the House Oversight Committee, revealed an expanding probe: six closed-door depositions will take place over the next month. The first, on June 29, will feature Pompeo's executive secretary Lisa Kenna. On July 8, the week after Bulatao testifies, the committees plan to call Mike Miller, the deputy assistant secretary for defense trade. On July 10, the panels plan to call Toni Porter, a senior adviser in the department. Later in July, the panels plan to call Marik String, a former deputy assistant secretary; Charles Faulkner, a former principal deputy assistant secretary; and R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Political Military Affairs.

State Department officials did not respond to a request for comment about Bulatao‘s planned appearance before the House committee.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 02:  U.S. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs the U.S. Capitol October 02, 2019 in Washington, DC. Linick reportedly met with congressional officials to brief them on information related to the impeachment inquiry centered around U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

That appearance, which a committee aide said had been confirmed, will be in a public session of the committee, a high-profile moment as Democrats seek to investigate President Donald Trump’s concerted effort to push back on the independence of inspectors general tasked with rooting out waste and misconduct inside the federal government. Trump told Congress he removed Linick because of a loss of confidence in the watchdog, but he later told reporters that he ousted Linick at the request of Pompeo and knew little about his work.

Bulatao’s planned appearance marks a shift: Senior State Department officials refused to cooperate with House investigators during last year’s impeachment investigation, ignoring subpoenas for documents and testimony from central figures in the probe, including another close Pompeo confidant, State Department counsel Ulrich Brechbuhl.

The strained relationship between Linick and Bulatao is at the heart of the committee’s investigation. Bulatao told the committee that Linick botched an investigation into his own office’s handling of a sensitive report about political retaliation inside the State Department, which leaked to the media ahead of its release. Linick was cleared in that probe by Pentagon watchdog Glenn Fine, whom Linick had asked to conduct the review.

Linick told lawmakers he faced pressure to stop looking into the Saudi arms sale, which Pompeo allies said was a policy dispute rather than a question of management. Linick said his response was that he was investigating the implementation of the policy, which is within the inspector general’s scope. Linick also emphasized that Bulatao was among a small inner circle of Pompeo aides who was informed of his ongoing probe of Pompeo’s use of government resources.

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House Dems weigh new push for Bolton testimony

Democrats spent months pretending John Bolton didn't exist after he snubbed their efforts to testify during the impeachment investigation and trial of President Donald Trump.

But not anymore.

Top House Democrats say they're seriously considering whether Bolton should appear before them — either voluntarily or under subpoena — to testify about explosive allegations contained in his new book, including that Trump encouraged China to construct internment camps for Uighurs, urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to purchase American agricultural products in order to help his reelection bid and promised autocrats like Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would do legal favors for an ally facing a U.S. indictment.

"We’ll make a judgment," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a Capitol press conference Thursday. "I’ll be meeting with the chairs to make a judgment."

Pelosi slammed Bolton's refusal to testify previously, saving his most damaging evidence for his book, as "a con." But she said the allegations nevertheless dovetail with the House's impeachment charges that Trump was unfit for office. "We’ll be discussing how the American people are best served by oversight," Pelosi said. "The public has a right to know."

Pelosi's comments followed Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, who told CNN Thursday morning that the House "ought to consider" subpoenaing Bolton to hear his allegations under oath.

"I really believe that we may need to get to the bottom of this. Not so much for impeachment. I don't care about impeachment," Clyburn said. "It's for preserving this electoral process that we have, because this president is doing everything he can to undermine fair and unfettered elections in this country. And so I believe John Bolton can do a great service if he were to come now and let the American people know that this election this year is under threat of being invaded once again by a foreign power."

Clyburn's comments came as House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel (D.N.Y.) and House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) indicated there are revived discussions about "next steps" related to Bolton, now that his book, which the Justice Department is attempting to block from publication, is scheduled to hit the shelves within days.

“We will continue to hold Trump accountable, and work to expose his abuses and corruption. In the coming days, we will be consulting with the speaker and other chairs on next steps," Schiff said of the Bolton revelations.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans were quick to downplay suggestions that Bolton should be called to testify about his allegations, even those indicating Trump is seeking foreign assistance in his reelection.

"He's trying to sell a book, and we've got so many things that are more important to do that that would not be my priority," Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters. Cornyn said Trump denied the suggestion he sought China's help. "With everything else we have to do, whether it's police reform or Covid-19, I just think those are more important."

On CNBC, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said Oval Office conversations should "remain confidential" so they're able to be "open and candid."

"So I have concerns about ... the way in which this is unfolding," Portman said.

Democrats had largely resigned themselves to ignoring Bolton after he blew off their requests for his testimony during impeachment. Bolton, reportedly, will needle the House in his book for failing to expand the scope of its impeachment probe beyond allegations that Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rivals. Though Bolton's book is expected to affirm the Democrats' case, he also indicates other potential foreign policy transgressions that could have been part of the impeachment case.

Democrats never subpoenaed Bolton during the impeachment process, but they did briefly subpoena his former deputy, Charles Kupperman, who shares an attorney with Bolton. But Kupperman fought the subpoena in court, suggesting he was torn between the obligation to speak to Congress and an order from Trump not to testify.

His attorney, Chuck Cooper, made clear that Bolton shared the same view and would similarly fight a subpoena. Ultimately, the House dropped its effort as its case proceeded to impeachment and trial. Other members of Bolton's National Security Council testified willingly under subpoena, a fact that House Democrats repeatedly pointed out amid Bolton's resistance.

After the House's impeachment, Bolton reversed himself and promised to testify during the Senate trial if subpoenaed. Ultimately, Senate Republicans refused to subpoena him, with only Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) joining all Democrats in favor.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that even though Bolton blew off calls to testify during impeachment, his allegations — particularly those about Trump's effort to get Xi to purchase American agricultural products — are credible.

“It fits. Right after Trump signed the deal I was critical of him and ... said it seems that he sold out for a bunch of soy beans which our farmers will never see purchased," Schumer said. "Bolton indicates that that was true, that Trump turned his back on American workers, on American strength, all to help his reelection. And the farmers aren’t even getting helped. Xi played him like a fool."

After Trump's acquittal, Democrats mulled calling Bolton again, but within weeks, the coronavirus pandemic overtook the congressional agenda, and matters related to investigating Trump appeared to move to the back burner.

The House's interest may extend beyond Bolton himself and to the White House's role in trying to suppress his book. Top Trump-appointed intelligence officials intervened in the process and accused Bolton of rushing to print his book without removing highly sensitive classified information. But their intervention came after the official tasked with reviewing his book, Ellen Knight, concluded that it had been scrubbed of classified details.

In a late Wednesday court filing, the Justice Department sought a restraining order to enjoin the book from being printed, even though copies have been distributed and many of its revelations had been obtained and printed by reporters. The court filing included affidavits from Trump's top intelligence and national security officials asserting that Bolton's book was still replete with sensitive intelligence and would harm national security if printed.

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Schiff won’t oppose Trump intel chief’s bid to declassify more of House GOP Russia report

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff will permit President Donald Trump's new intelligence chief to declassify additional portions of a 2018 Republican-led committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Democrats have derided the report as a whitewash of the episode, contending that Republicans closed their inquiry without seeking testimony from central witnesses and refused to subpoena others who wouldn’t answer fundamental questions. But an aide to the Schiff-led committee said Thursday that Schiff "won't object" to John Ratcliffe's request to view the unredacted report and consider whether additional portions might be declassified for the public.

The move is the latest indication that the administration is pursuing Trump's demands to relitigate the investigations that dogged the first three years of his presidency. Trump has repeatedly assailed the Russia probes as a "hoax" and "witch hunt. Since Trump survived a Senate impeachment trial, he has sought to oust officials across government he viewed as disloyal, and he has installed some of his fiercest allies in senior intelligence roles amid this effort.

The GOP report, based on nearly 60 witness interviews, produced no evidence that Trump or his associates conspired with Russians during the Kremlin's 2016 interference. The panel also raised questions about the intelligence "tradecraft" used by the Obama administration to determine that Russia favored Trump to win, though that conclusion has since been reaffirmed by special counsel Robert Muller and the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee.

“The Republican report was properly met with derision at the time, and conflicts not only with the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community, but special counsel Mueller’s evidence and findings, evidence presented in criminal indictments, the bipartisan findings of the SSCI, and the report of the then-HPSCI minority," a House Intelligence Committee aide said. "The GOP report remains a transparent effort to rewrite the history of the 2016 election by disputing the clear and proven finding that Putin preferred Trump’s election to the presidency."

The panel's response followed Ratcliffe's request for a new look at the 2018 GOP report, revealed in a letter to Senate Republicans made public earlier Thursday. In the letter, Ratcliffe provided a newly declassified portion of the Obama administration's review of Russian interference in the election and told the senators he would seek Schiff's permission for a new look at the 2018 GOP report.

"To ensure that the IC does not encroach on Congressional prerogatives, I have requested that the Chairman of HPSCI share a copy of the report with me so that the IC can conduct a classification review," Ratcliffe wrote in the June 10 letter.

Ratcliffe, a former GOP congressman who was confirmed last month as the director of national intelligence, was in his first term on the House Intelligence Committee when Trump nominated him to the post. He didn't play a role in the panel's crafting of the 2018 report, but he emerged as a sharp critic of the Mueller investigation from his perch on the panel, as well as on the House Judiciary Committee.

The office of the DNI did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Schiff's reply.

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Ousted State Department watchdog tells lawmakers he’s unaware if Pompeo probes were stopped

Former State Department watchdog Steve Linick — ousted last month by President Donald Trump amid ongoing inquiries into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — told lawmakers last week that he has no idea whether the Pompeo probes were halted once he left the department in mid-May.

"I would have no indication one way or the other," Linick told lawmakers last week during a private, virtual interview held by the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees, according to a 253-page transcript released Wednesday.

The acknowledgment had Democratic lawmakers fretting that Linick's investigations into whether Pompeo and his wife misused State Department resources, as well as of Pompeo's handling of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, may have been stopped or slowed down by the new leader of the inspector general's office.

Linick told lawmakers that he was shocked by his removal, which came abruptly on May 15. He said he had just concluded a coronavirus briefing with staffers that morning when Undersecretary Brian Bulatao and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, senior aides to Pompeo, asked him for a meeting.

"The deputy said to me: The president decided to exercise his power to remove you," Linick recalled.

Linick was then placed on administrative leave, losing access to his office and files. He was allowed back in the following day, with an escort, to reclaim his personal effects.

Linick's interview is the first in an ongoing review by congressional Democrats into allegations that Pompeo sought the watchdog's removal to blunt the ongoing reviews of his conduct.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump told reporters he removed Linick at Pompeo's request, but he provided no details about the rationale, despite a legal requirement to do so. His letter to Congress, required by law, simply stated that he had lost confidence in Linick. He later told reporters he had no knowledge of Linick or his performance — only that he had been appointed to the post by President Barack Obama.

Linick noted that the State Department informed Congress that the reviews were still ongoing, but he acknowledged that his successor, acting inspector general Stephan Akard, would have discretion over whether to continue it and how many resources to put into it. Akard has raised flags on Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle because he is retaining his position as a senior State Department aide, in addition to the acting inspector general role. That dual-hatted position could jeopardize whistleblower protections or other confidential information that would normally be shared with the inspector general's office, lawmakers have warned.

Much of Linick's interview focused on allegations by Pompeo aides that Linick was suspected in the 2019 leak of an internal review to The Daily Beast, one that accused senior State Department officials of exacting political retaliation on some employees. Linick and a slew of his senior aides were ultimately cleared by the Pentagon inspector general, who he tapped to conduct the review.

The report of that investigation was provided to lawmakers, and Republicans raised questions about whether it was thorough enough and whether the Pentagon watchdog, Glenn Fine, was a neutral investigator. Fine was demoted by Trump in April after he was tapped by colleagues to monitor the federal coronavirus response. He resigned from his post last month.

Linick accused Bulatao, in particular, of "bullying" him and said he had never been given any indication that his performance was in question. Though Trump needs no cause to remove an inspector general, Linick said he never got any explanation for why the president might have lost confidence in him.

Linick also recounted his role in providing documents to Congress during the House's late-2019 impeachment inquiry and said he had been unaware that the files he turned over were the only ones provided by the State Department to lawmakers during that inquiry.

"When the impeachment proceedings started and the issues began concerning the whistleblower and so forth, I realized I was sitting on documents that might be relevant to that, and, in accordance with my obligations and to make sure that the right folks had the documents, I provided them to the Hill," Linick said.

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Key House panels to interview State Department officials in probe of fired watchdog

Two House committees intend to interview senior State Department officials believed to be witnesses to matters that were being investigated by State Department inspector general Steve Linick before President Donald Trump abruptly fired him earlier this month.

The Oversight and Foreign Affairs panels, chaired by Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Eliott Engel, respectively, are probing Linick's firing and have emphasized that the watchdog was pursuing investigations related to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when Trump forced him into administrative leave, triggering a 30-day countdown to Linick's removal.

Trump told reporters he made the decision at the behest of Pompeo but otherwise knew little about Linick.

Among the officials the committees intend to call are Brian Bulatao, undersecretary of State for management; Lisa Kenna, Pompeo's executive secretary; senior adviser Toni Porter; Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper; former Deputy Assistant Secretary Marik String, a legal adviser to the department; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Political-Military Affairs Mike Miller; and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Charles Faulkner.

The committees believe the seven officials played a role in Linick's firing or are fact witnesses to Linick's ongoing investigations when he was sidelined — or both.

A State Department spokesperson indicated that officials are weighing the requests for interviews.

"As we communicated directly to Chairman Engel yesterday, the Department is carefully reviewing various requests for information, records, and interviews with State Department personnel, and is committed to engaging in good faith discussions with the Chairman concerning these requests."

The new investigation hearkens to the impeachment inquiry launched by the House Intelligence Committee, in conjunction with the Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees. At the time, the panels called a similar list of high-ranking State Department and Trump administration officials to investigate whether Trump had abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to probe his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

It's unclear where the transcribed interviews will take place or whether the panels will issue subpoenas to compel testimony for any witness who refuses to appear voluntarily. But the committees say they intend to release public transcripts of the interviews "as quickly as possible."

After Trump removed Linick, reports revealed that the watchdog was reviewing whether Pompeo had relied on taxpayer-funded aides to do household chores for him and his wife. The inspector general was also examining the Trump administration's arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which were made over the objections of many senior officials, as well as Pompeo's role in hosting lavish taxpayer-funded dinners that often featured high-profile conservative guests.

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Top House Dems demand Trump reinstate ousted State watchdog

Top House committee chairs are demanding that President Donald Trump reinstate the State Department watchdog he ousted at Mike Pompeo's request earlier this month.

In a Thursday letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, the Democrats who lead the Oversight Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee described the ouster of inspector general Steve Linick as "politically motivated" and suggested that Pompeo's role in it appeared meant to undercut Linick's ongoing investigations into his conduct — including his role in a series of lavish taxpayer-funded dinners that reports suggest were largely oriented toward conservatives and with little diplomatic value.

"Any attempt by you or your office to interfere with the Inspector General’s investigation of yourself is illegal and will be thoroughly examined by Congress," Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) write in the letter, also signed by subcommittee chairmen Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas).

The lawmakers are asking Pompeo to provide by June 4 details about his contacts with the White House regarding Linicks' removal, as well as the rationale behind the choice of his temporary replacement, Stephen Akard, who Democrats worry will be a conduit to provide information about Linick's confidential work to agency leaders. The Democrats are also asking Pompeo for guest lists connected to his series of "Madison Dinners," as well as invoices, approvals and ethics decisions regarding the use taxpayer funds on the events.

The lawmakers sent a second letter to Akard, similarly asking him to provide details of his appointment by June 4. They also ask him to catalogue any of the ongoing investigations, audits and reviews Linick was conducting before his removal.

They're also urging Akard to resign from a separate State Department post in which he reports to Pompeo. The dual role, they say, could be used to funnel information from the inspector general's office to the officials being scrutinized, including Pompeo, and that would likely chill whistleblowers from coming forward, the Democrats write.

"This inherent conflict of interest will prohibit you from having the independence necessary to conduct fair and rigorous oversight of the Department and the Secretary," the lawmakers say.

Linick's ouster was the latest in a string of moves by Trump to either remove or fire inspectors general he deems disloyal to his administration. Trump has attacked all of the watchdogs appointed to their posts by President Barack Obama, even though some have worked across administrations of both parties for decades. Trump has relied heavily on acting inspectors general, who are more easily removed from their roles compared to Senate-confirmed appointees, whose ousters require notification to Congress.

Linick is the second Senate-confirmed inspector general removed by Trump in recent months. Trump also abruptly ousted intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson, citing his handling of a whistleblower complaint that accused Trump of wrongdoing in his effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. The report, which Atkinson sought to provide to Congress before the Justice Department blocked him, was later made public by the administration and ignited the House's impeachment of the president in December.

Though just two inspectors general have been fired abruptly, Trump has also demoted the watchdog tapped by fellow inspectors general to monitor his administration's handling of the coronavirus response. He also nominated a member of the White House counsel's team to fill a newly created watchdog role for Treasury's $500 billion economic stabilization fund created to bolster the economy amid the pandemic, a move that sparked outcry from Democrats.

Though lawmakers of both parties have urged Trump to nominate permanent inspectors general, Democrats also criticized Trump for picking a replacement for the acting Health and Human Services inspector general, Christi Grimm, who drew Trump's ire when she issued a report cataloging a lack of federal preparedness for the coronavirus crisis.

It's unclear if Democrats will be able to procure any details from the State Department. The House has struggled to obtain information from the State Department in previous efforts, including during its impeachment process, when Pompeo ignored Intelligence Committee subpoenas for documents about the president's efforts regarding Ukraine. Pompeo testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year but faced no questions about Ukraine.

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Dozens of Russia probe transcripts poised for release after end of intel review

The intelligence community has completed a long-delayed review of transcripts connected to the House Republican-led investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a development that could reignite the furor over the long-dormant probe.

Ric Grenell, President Donald Trump's acting director of national intelligence, informed lawmakers this week in newly disclosed correspondence that the White House has dropped its demand to review aspects of the testimony, which had led to a year-long standoff with Chairman Adam Schiff, who took control of the committee last year.

The move paves the way for as many as 53 transcripts from that investigation to be released publicly, more than two years after the probe concluded.

“After more than a year of unnecessary delay, the ODNI has finally concluded its protracted classification review of the Committee’s transcripts, and it also appears the White House has now abandoned its improper insistence on reviewing key transcripts, which the Committee appropriately rejected," a House Intelligence Committee spokesman said in a statement.

The spokesman indicated that the panel would be reviewing the intelligence community’s proposed redactions: “Our review of ODNI’s newly proposed redactions will be as expeditious as possible given the constraints of the pandemic, and we look forward to releasing these transcripts, which relate to misconduct by the Trump campaign and the president himself.” Aides to Grenell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The release of the transcripts themselves has been a saga. The GOP-led intelligence committee voted to send them to the intelligence community for a classification review in September 2018, and then-chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) suggested they could be released in time for the midterm elections. But the panel didn't transmit the transcripts to the DNI's office until November, nine months after the conclusion of an investigation riven by partisan sniping and distrust.

In March 2019, the ODNI informed lawmakers that the White House intended to review the transcripts — a prospect that Schiff rejected as an inappropriate incursion on the committee's request for a classification review. Intel officials agreed not to share the transcripts with the White House, but the episode led to a lengthy standoff. In June, intelligence officials proposed redactions for 43 of the 53 transcripts but indicated the White House wanted access to the remaining ten.

By September, as the House was gearing up for impeachment hearings against Trump, Schiff convened the committee for a vote to release the 43 vetted transcripts as well as two of the 10 stalled transcripts that were determined to include no classified information. The panel unanimously supported his proposal. Nunes, at the time, dinged the DNI's office for foot-dragging, and Schiff said the White House had "hijacked" the process. He indicated he intended to quickly release the vetted transcripts.

But as the impeachment process raged, the transcript matter went on the backburner, where it remained until last week, when Trump allies began demanding that Schiff produce them publicly. As the calls from conservatives mounted, Grenell sent his letter indicating that the issue with the 10 disputed transcripts had been resolved and there are no remaining impediments to releasing them.

It's unclear how quickly the panel can review ODNI's redactions, but the transcripts are expected to reach thousands of pages and reopen matters related to the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia — and the insistence of Trump and his allies that the entire matter was a "hoax" meant to derail his presidency.

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Coronavirus watchdog nominee pledges he won’t seek Trump’s permission to talk to Congress

President Donald Trump’s pick to police his administration’s massive coronavirus economic rescue effort vowed Tuesday that he would not seek Trump’s permission before reporting to lawmakers.

“Do you plan to gain presidential approval before investigating contacts, issuing reports or communicating with Congress?” asked Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), during a confirmation hearing for Brian Miller, Trump’s pick as a newly created special inspector general for pandemic response.

“No senator,” Miller replied.

Miller’s sworn assertion suggests he plans to uphold the language in the $2 trillion CARES Act, which requires the new inspector general to report to Congress anytime he is impeded in his investigative work. It’s a rejection of the position held by Trump, who in a March 27 signing statement said the newly established watchdog could not be permitted or required to report to Congress without “presidential supervision.”

“I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [IG] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required [by the Constitution],” Trump said in the statement.

In the exchange with Cortez Masto, Miller also indicated that he would inform Congress “immediately” if any agencies asked him to withhold information, and that he would consider any effort to dole out massive sums of taxpayer money to states based “for political gain” a violation that he would review.

The back-and-forth was the most critical of Miller’s two-plus hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, which featured a slew of questions from Democrats about whether Miller’s current role as a White House lawyer disqualified him from acting as an independent inspector general.

Miller repeatedly vowed to resist any pressure from the president or other administration officials seeking to undermine his independence. He cited his track record of battling with officials from George W. Bush’s administration as a federal watchdog and vowed he wouldn’t “bend” for anyone in Trump’s orbit either.

But Miller sidestepped questions about whether he played a role, as a White House lawyer, in Trump’s abrupt dismissal of intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson last month or the president’s subsequent move to sideline another watchdog, Glenn Fine, who was initially picked to oversee the government’s broad coronavirus response. Miller, too, declined, to say whether he agreed with Trump’s characterization of Atkinson as a “disgrace to IGs.”

The hearing quickly became a skirmish in Congress’ broader confrontation with Trump’s efforts to dismantle or assert control over the independent watchdogs charged with monitoring his administration. Republicans largely backed Miller, rejecting suggestions that he might not be independent enough of the president. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) called such suggestions “innuendo.”

Miller is the first inspector general nominee to come before the Senate since Trump began a concerted effort to remake the community of federal watchdogs and remove those he has deemed, without basis, as acting with an anti-Trump bias. And Senate Democrats have raised concerns about whether a White House aide can truly exercise independence from a president determined to tighten his grip on the inspector general community.

“Looking at the last 20 years, we found only one IG candidate was nominated while serving in the White House counsel’s office, another nominee served in the White House counsel’s office under an earlier administration,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. “Both of them resigned, one for politicizing the office, the other for a lack of independence. Not a great track record.”

Miller and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who appeared via video, sparred as she pressed him to make commitments on what might constitute potential abuses worthy of investigation.

Though he first resisted engaging in what he called "hypotheticals" — she said he made the commitments earlier to her in private — he agreed that a bailed-out corporation that lays off employees could spur an investigation, as well as companies that lobbied the White House and Congress before receiving funds.

"Certainly, situations where companies are spending the money for profits and laying off workers seems to be a situation that I would want to investigate," he said.

Under questioning from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Miller said all inspectors general should be willing to face firing for providing honest information to their superiors.

"You should never be afraid of stating the truth and if you have to be fired, you’re fired," he said. "But you always have to be prepared, at least, to walk away from your job."

For his part, Miller, who Trump tapped as “special inspector general for pandemic response,” pledged to operate free of political influence, in rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. Miller, who is likely to be confirmed in the Republican-controlled Senate, would oversee a $500-billion fund managed by the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve meant to shore up companies and industries ravaged amid the coronavirus crisis.

“I think independence is vital for the effective operation of any inspector general,” Miller said in response to questioning from the committee’s chairman, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). “I met with resistance throughout my tenure as inspector general. I conducted investigations of major contractors, much to the chagrin of leaders at the GSA … Ultimately I was proven right.”

To emphasize his willingness to buck a Republican administration, Miller recounted an investigation of President George W. Bush's GSA administrator, Lurita Doan, in which she marshaled agency officials to resist his investigation and described him as a "terrorist." He said he persisted with his probe and that ultimate Bush demanded her resignation.

The hearing became Democrats’ first chance to shine a public light on the independence of IGs since early April, when Trump fired Atkinson over his handling of a whistleblower complaint accusing the president of wrongdoing — one that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate.

Since then, Trump also demoted Glenn Fine, the inspector general picked by colleagues to broadly overseeing the government-wide coronavirus response and nominated a replacement for the Health and Human Services inspector general, after accusing her without evidence of being an anti-Trump partisan.

Warren said Miller should have been disqualified for the position after working as one of Trump's impeachment attorneys, but she said "you will however have the chance to defend your independence and your integrity by your actions."

"If you stick to the commitments that you have made here, and you are an aggressive watchdog, then I'm prepared to work with you," she said.

"I would like to work with you, even if you don't vote for my confirmation as you indicated yesterday," he responded.

Democrats bristled at Miller’s response to questions about his role, as a White House lawyer, in responding to a GAO investigation of the president’s handling of military aid to Ukraine — a central issue that led to Trump’s impeachment. Miller replied to a GAO inquiry on the matter by deferring to a response from the White House budget office and declining to provide additional information to auditors. Miller told lawmakers Tuesday that his response was simply to avoid a duplicative response and that he was simply “answering the mail.”

The Federal Reserve, backstopped by Treasury funds, last month revealed programs designed to provide $2 trillion in support for the economy for a wide range of businesses as well as state and city governments with hemorrhaging budgets.

Trump indicated in his signing statement that he rejects requirements that inspectors general unilaterally communicate with Congress — and that he will ultimately decide whether the inspector general is able to speak to lawmakers about that issue, emphasizing that inspectors general are executive branch officials who report to him. His statement, though, ignores the long-standing independence afforded to inspectors general, which Trump has repeatedly tested during his term.

Though Democrats have raised the loudest alarms about Trump’s treatment of inspectors general, some Republicans, too, have gently encouraged him to reconsider his posture, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and James Lankford (R-Okla.).

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House creates new select coronavirus oversight committee over GOP objections

The House voted Thursday to establish a new investigative committee to monitor President Donald Trump's implementation of nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus relief measures, a step they said would safeguard the massive sums flowing to businesses, hospitals and individual taxpayers.

"It will be laser-focused on ensuring that taxpayer money goes to workers' paychecks and benefits and it will ensure that the federal response is based on the best possible science and guided by health experts — and that the money invested is not being exploited by profiteers and price gougers," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi in remarks on the House floor.

But the measure passed on a party line vote of 212-182, with Republicans unanimously slamming the effort as a veiled attempt to damage Trump politically. They described it as redundant to the multiple congressional committees already have jurisdiction to monitor the law.

"Why do we need another oversight committee? Speaker Pelosi said it's all going to be bipartisan. I'm sorry, I don't believe it," said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), who accused other Democrat-led committees of working "nonstop to criticize President Trump and try to influence the 2020 election."

"I'm sorry. I call B.S.,” she added.

Democrats said the newly established select committee, which will operate under the umbrella of the House Oversight Committee, is a crucial addition to an lengthening list of entities tasked with guarding against waste or mismanagement by the Trump administration, which has been notoriously averse to any form of independent scrutiny.

They noted that Trump has already begun resisting efforts by internal watchdogs — the inspectors general placed inside each federal agency — to communicate potential problems to Congress. Trump has also repeatedly stonewalled congressional oversight in non-coronavirus-related probes, eventually fueling an article of impeachment in the House.

But Republicans insisted from the start that Pelosi's intention could not be bipartisan. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said the panel appeared to be an effort to aid former vice president Joe Biden's presidential bid.

He noted that multiple congressional committees were already responsible for conducting oversight, as well as several new mechanisms created in the multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief laws. Those include a five-member Congressional Oversight Commission, a committee of inspectors general given broad authority over implementation of the law and a newly established inspector general for pandemic response. Lawmakers also sent millions of dollars to shore up the auditing power of the Government Accountability Office.

The measure passed after a remarkable House floor debate that featured lawmakers and aides clad in face masks, adhering to social distancing on the House floor. Several members, including Pelosi, removed their masks to deliver remarks.

A handful of Republicans, including Jordan, disregarded the House physician's recommendation that lawmakers wear masks when in the chamber and in other Capitol rooms shared by colleagues. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) thanked Pelosi for setting the trend of briefly removing face masks to speak, though some lawmakers wore theirs during floor remarks.

Pelosi reiterated that she intends to name House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) to lead the new select committee, citing his work overseeing the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The new panel will be established as a 12-member subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, but it allows the speaker to name seven members and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to name five. McCarthy previously told Pelosi he would hold off on appointing Republicans until he sees whom Democrats tap.

The new subcommittee will begin with a $2 million budget, and Clyburn will be authorized to issue subpoenas or take depositions. The committee's official charge is to examine the use of taxpayer funds to address the coronavirus crisis, potential waste or mismanagement, the effectiveness of new laws meant to address the pandemic, federal preparedness, the economic impact of the crisis, socioeconomic disparities in the impact of the crisis, the Trump administration's handling of the crisis, the ability of whistleblowers to report waste or abuse and the Trump administration's cooperativeness with Congress and other oversight entities.

Pelosi quickly dismissed Republican assertions that the panel would be a partisan weapon, suggesting it would focus less on Trump and more on those who would seek to exploit the massive infusion of taxpayer funds for wasteful or nefarious purposes.

"This isn't about assigning blame," Pelosi said, citing scam artists who have already sought to divert funds from pots of money meant to aid small businesses or support hospitals with lifesaving equipment. "This is about taking responsibility."

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