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 TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE’s former personal attorney Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenDC bars to open early for impeachment mania Ex-Trump campaign official testifies Stone gave updates on WikiLeaks email dumps Broadcast, cable news networks to preempt regular programming for Trump impeachment coverage MORE.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone told House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsBrindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Elijah Cummings's widow, will run for his House seat Former NAACP president to run for Cummings's House seat 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 NadlerHouse to vote on bill to ensure citizenship for children of overseas service members As impeachment goes public, forget 'conventional wisdom' What this 'impeachment' is really about — and it's not the Constitution 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.