The White House is telling federal agencies to blow off Democratic lawmakers’ oversight requests, as Republicans fear the information could be weaponized against President Donald Trump.
At meetings with top officials for various government departments this spring, Uttam Dhillon, a White House lawyer, told agencies not to cooperate with such requests from Democrats, according to Republican sources inside and outside the administration.
It appears to be a formalization of a practice that had already taken hold, as Democrats have complained that their oversight letters requesting information from agencies have gone unanswered since January, and the Trump administration has not yet explained the rationale.
The declaration amounts to a new level of partisanship in Washington, where the president and his administration already feels besieged by media reports and attacks from Democrats. The idea, Republicans said, is to choke off the Democratic congressional minorities from gaining new information that could be used to attack the president.
"You have Republicans leading the House, the Senate and the White House," a White House official said. "I don’t think you’d have the Democrats responding to every minority member request if they were in the same position."
A White House spokeswoman said the policy of the administration is “to accommodate the requests of chairmen, regardless of their political party.” There are no Democratic chairmen, as Congress is controlled by Republicans.
The administration also responds to “all non-oversight inquiries, including the Senate’s inquiries for purposes of providing advice and consent on nominees, without regard to the political party of the requester,” the spokeswoman said. “ Multiple agencies have, in fact, responded to minority member requests. No agencies have been directed not to respond to minority requests.”
Republicans said that President Barack Obama’s administration was not always quick to respond to them and sometimes ignored them. However, the Obama White House never ordered agencies to stop cooperating with Republican oversight requests altogether, making the marching orders from Trump’s aides that much more unusual.
“What I do not remember is a blanket request from the Obama administration not to respond to Republicans,” said a former longtime senior Republican staffer.
There are some exceptions to the Trump administration order, particularly from national security agencies, Democrats and Republicans said. Agencies will also comply if a Republican committee chairman joins the Democratic requests, but ranking members’ oversight requests are spurned.
Congressional minorities frequently ask questions of the administration intended to embarrass the president or garner a quick headline. And Democrats have fired off requests they surely knew the administration would not answer, such as asking the White House in March to make visitor logs of Trump Tower and Mar-A-Lago publicly available.
But House and Senate lawmakers also routinely fire off much more obscure requests not intended to generate news coverage. And the Trump administration’s plans to stonewall Democrats is in many ways unprecedented and could lead to a worsening of the gridlock in Washington.
Austin Evers, a former Obama administration lawyer in the State Department who runs a watchdog group called American Oversight, said the Trump administration has instituted a “dramatic change” in policy from Reagan-era congressional standards in which the government provided more information to committee chairman but also consistently engaged in oversight with rank-and-file minority members.
“Instructing agencies not to communicate with members of the minority party will poison the well. It will damage relationships between career staffers at agencies and subject matter experts in Congress,” Evers said. “One of the reasons you respond to letters from the minority party is to explain yourself. It is to put on the record that even accusations that you find unreasonable are not accurate.”
One month ago, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats sent a letter to the Office of Personnel Management asking for cybersecurity information after it was revealed that millions of people had their identities compromised. The letterasked questions about how cybersecurity officials were hired, and in Rice’s view, it “was not a political letter at all.”
"The answer we got back is, ‘We only speak to the chair people of committees.’ We said, ‘That’s absurd, what are you talking about?’” Rice said in an interview. “I was dumbfounded at their response. I had never gotten anything like that … The administration has installed loyalists at every agency to keep tabs on what information people can get.”
At a House Appropriations hearing in May, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) asked acting General Services Administrator Tim Horne about a briefing House Oversight Committee staffers had received from the GSA, in which they were informed that the “GSA has a new policy only to respond to Republican committee chairmen.”
“The administration has instituted a new policy that matters of oversight need to be requested by the committee chair,” Horne responded.
In February, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked for information on changes to healthcare.gov from the Health and Human Services Department. They’re still waiting for an answer. In early May, Murray and six other senators asked the president about why Vivek Murthy was dismissed as surgeon general. There was no response, and her staff said those are just a couple of the requests that have gone unanswered.
“It’s no surprise that they would try to prevent Congress from getting the information we need to make sure government is working for the people we represent,” Murray said when asked about the lack of cooperation.
The Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Accountability Committee, the primary investigator in that chamber, has received some responses from the Trump administration but has seen several letters only signed by Democrats ignored. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wrote Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for help addressing the challenges of rural schools and joined with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to question the security of Trump’s use of a personal cell phone as president. Neither was answered, an aide said.
A senior Democratic aide said that of the Senate Democrats’ 225 oversight letters sent to the Trump administration since January asking for information, the vast majority have received no response.
“When it comes to almost anything we’ve done at a federal agency, very close to 100 percent of those we haven’t heard anything back. And at the White House it’s definitely 100 percent,” said a second senior Democratic aide. “This is rampant all over committee land.”