White House rejects Dem request to interview ex-Trump aide

The White House on Friday rejected a Democratic congressional request to interview a former White House lawyer about hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money payments made by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE’s former personal attorney Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenSenior HUD official reprimanded for making political statements on the job New York attorneys subpoena eight years of Trump tax returns: report Eric Holder says Trump is subject to prosecution after leaving office MORE.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone told House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsOvernight Defense: Trump says he has 'many options' on Iran | Hostage negotiator chosen for national security adviser | Senate Dems block funding bill | Documents show Pentagon spent at least 4K at Trump's Scotland resort Top Oversight Democrat demands immigration brass testify Documents show Pentagon spent at least 4,000 at Trump's Turnberry resort in Scotland MORE (D-Md.) in a letter obtained by The Hill that the White House has been “cooperative and responsive” to the panel's requests for documents.

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But Cipollone said that because the Oversight panel wants to interview Trump’s former deputy assistant and deputy counsel Stefan Passantino about things he discussed or advised during his White House tenure, the request needs to be sent to Cipollone’s office — not directly to Passantino.

Passantino left the White House last summer and is now working for the Trump Organization, handling requests from House Democrats like Cummings who have launched multiple investigations into Trump, his family members and allies, and his business dealings.

“In response to your request, given longstanding law and practice, we are not inclined to make the former Deputy Counsel to the President available for a transcribed interview inquiring into his conversations and advice he provided while serving as Deputy Counsel to the President,” Cipollone wrote to Cummings.

The Oversight chairman’s request is separate from the sprawling investigation into Trump’s campaign, administration and business enterprise that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerPelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Nadler's House committee holds a faux hearing in search of a false crime Lewandowski says he's under no obligation to speak truthfully to the media MORE (D-N.Y.) launched earlier this week. But Passantino, the White house’s former top ethics lawyer, is one of 81 individuals and entities that Nadler is focusing on in that obstruction of justice and public corruption probe. 

Cummings had sent a letter to Passantino on Feb. 27 — the day of Cohen’s explosive public testimony before Congress — requesting he appear for a transcribed interview later this month, on March 18, about the payments made to women who alleged before the 2016 election that they had affairs with Trump.

The Oversight chairman has previously raised concerns that Passantino and Sheri Dillon, a private lawyer for Trump, may have provided false information to government ethics officials about the payments. Cummings has also requested a transcribed interview from Dillon about the payments.

Cummings wrote in a Feb. 15 letter to Cipollone that the committee had obtained internal notes from Office of Government Ethics (OGE) officials that described “changing explanations” from Trump’s legal team about the payments.

“It now appears that President Trump’s other attorneys — at the White House and in private practice — may have provided false information about these payments to federal officials,” Cummings wrote. “This raises significant questions about why some of the President’s closest advisers made these false claims and the extent to which they too were acting at the direction of, or in coordination with, the President.”

In the letter Friday, Cipollone accused Cummings of making “unfair accusations maligning the reputations of individual attorneys” and mounting an “unnecessarily antagonistic inquiry.”

“Such unfair assertions are the antithesis of the procedure that you have insisted the Committee should follow,” he wrote.

Cummings’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.

The Oversight chairman could choose to subpoena Passantino to compel his testimony. 

Cohen, who last year pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations linked to the payments as well as other charges, is due to report to prison in May to serve a three-year sentence for his crimes.

The former lawyer has implicated Trump in the hush money scheme, detailing the president’s involvement in high-profile testimony before the Oversight and Reform Committee last week. The president, however, has offered shifting explanations about his knowledge of the payments but denied wrongdoing.

“It was not a campaign contribution, and there were no violations of the campaign finance laws by me. Fake News!” Trump tweeted on Thursday.