Congressional Democrats are setting the stage to demand transparency from Trump administration officials even before special counsel Robert Mueller wraps up his report on possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In two letters sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ), top Democrats in the House of Representatives said the public has the right to know Mueller’s findings and get honest answers from DOJ officials.
On Thursday, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) criticized former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s use of executive privilege during a February 7 hearing in which Whitaker refused to answer questions about his conversations with the White House.
In a separate joint letter sent Friday, six House committee chairs told Attorney General William Barr they expect him to make Mueller’s highly anticipated final report public.
“We write to you to express, in the strongest possible terms, our expectation that the Department of Justice will release to the public the report Special Counsel Mueller submits to you — without delay and to the maximum extent permitted by law,” the letter states.
During his confirmation hearing, Barr pledged transparency surrounding the release of the Mueller report but left wiggle room that could allow him to shield some information from the public. Several other Trump administration officials have refused to answer questions from lawmakers during congressional hearings, claiming Trump could invoke executive privilege, a legal standard that shields certain conversations between the president and members of his administration.
Now House Democrats are demanding transparency. The joint letter asked that the Justice Department provide Congress with its reasoning for withholding any information from the public and provide any other information and material obtained or produced by Mueller involving foreign actors or people who were the subject of a criminal or counterintelligence investigation.
The letter was co-signed by Nadler, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY), Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA).
“If the Special Counsel has reason to believe that the President has engaged in criminal or other serious misconduct, then the President must be subject to accountability either in a court or to the Congress,” the letter reads.
In a separate letter Thursday, Nadler said the Justice Department helped the Trump administration stonewall congressional inquiries into whether the Trump White house unlawfully interfered in its investigations when it allowed Whitaker to dodge questions by invoking executive privilege during the February 7 hearing.
Days before the hearing, Whitaker had said he was “fully briefed” on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
However, hours before the hearing, a DOJ attorney informed Nadler that Whitaker could not answer questions about his communications with the president, citing a historical precedence of officials invoking executive privilege. Nadler, in a letter to DOJ on Thursday, dismissed the agency’s reasoning for invoking executive privilege.
“The Department’s stance and Mr. Whitaker’s conduct suggest a disturbing conclusion: that the Department is determined to allow Trump Administration officials to stonewall when asked about their communications with the President or other White House officials, no matter how much time those officials are given to resolve potential privilege issues,” Nadler wrote.
Nadler’s letter is intended to lay out the House Judiciary Committee’s argument against the Trump administration’s practice of invoking executive privilege as a way of avoiding answering questions by committee members, according to a congressional staffer familiar with the letter. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had previously dodged questions from members of congress about his conversations with Trump by citing executive privilege.
The letter is intended to let DOJ officials “know this is our view of how witnesses should cooperate with the committee. It’s laying the foundation for us calling in future witnesses,” the staffer told ThinkProgress.