House Democrats leave empty chair for McGahn at hearing
Dems open new front against Trump
House Democrats are digging into the Trump administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia, making its plan to sell nuclear technology to the kingdom the subject of the first major investigation by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
The investigation was announced Tuesday in conjunction with the release of an interim report that details allegations made by unnamed whistleblowers that senior White House officials ignored warnings from legal and ethics advisers to stop pursuing a plan to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.
It hits at a nexus of controversies from President Trump's first two years in office, including the Trump-Saudi relationship, the downfall of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the business ties of Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Outside experts say the whistleblower aspect of the case likely sparked Chairman Elijah Cummings's (D-Md.) interest in prioritizing the investigation over a litany of other issues Democrats have been eager to investigate.
"The House Government Oversight Committee has a history of investigating activities and decisions executed by the White House, regardless of political party," Mark Zaid, a Washington-based lawyer specializing in national security cases, said in an email. "It especially takes serious those concerns brought to it by whistleblowers."
The 24-page report, prepared by the Democratic staff of the committee, focuses on the first three months of Trump's presidency, when whistleblowers said Flynn and aide Derek Harvey pushed a proposal to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia. The proposal came from a private company for which Flynn served as an adviser.
"Based on this snapshot of events, the committee is now launching an investigation to determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump administration are in the national security interests of the United States or, rather, serve those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change in U.S. foreign policy," the report said.
Cummings also sent letters Tuesday requesting further information to a wide range of subjects: the White House; the departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, State and Treasury; the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the CIA; Flynn's company, the Flynn Intel Group; the private company pushing the nuclear plan, IP3 International; a company run by a former business colleague of Flynn's, ACU Strategic Partners; Trump confidant Tom Barrack; and Barrack's investment firm, Colony NorthStar.
A spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC) did not respond to The Hill's request for comment Tuesday.
Republicans on the committee said Democrats released the interim report without their input, accusing the majority of partisanship.
"We did not receive a draft of the report until last night and have not had the opportunity to fully evaluate the material it presents," minority spokeswoman Charli Huddleston said in a statement. "This is a delicate and nuanced issue that Chairman Cummings is approaching without bipartisan input and with far flung requests for information."
The report from Democratic staff says that Cummings made several requests to Republicans for investigations of the matters in the probe, but that they went unfulfilled when Democrats were in the minority.
The inquiry comes as U.S.-Saudi relations are in precarious state. Fed up at the kingdom over the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen civil war, Congress is on the verge of forcing Trump's hand on the issue and passing a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen.
The Oversight report makes several references to Khashoggi and the Trump administration's "equivocation" in responding to his death.
The report also puts a spotlight back on Flynn, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Flynn served as Trump's national security adviser for 24 days before resigning when it was revealed he misled Vice President Pence on the conversations with the Russian.
Under U.S. law, the United States must enter into what's known as a 123 agreement with other countries to sell them nuclear technology. Such deals are meant to ensure nonproliferation standards are met.
The administration has previously acknowledged officials such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry have been negotiating with the Saudis on a 123 agreement. And lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern at the negotiations since Saudi Arabia has said it would not accept a deal that includes the so-called gold standard, or prohibitions on enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel to produce plutonium that are essential steps in producing nuclear weapons.
The report released Tuesday said whistleblowers came forward because they were concerned about "abnormal acts" and "a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting."
"And they have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisors at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump administration officials to halt their efforts," the report said.
The report said efforts started in the earliest days of the Trump administration to push a plan from IP3 International. Public filings say Flynn was an adviser for a subsidiary of IP3 from June 2016 to December 2016 at the same time he worked on Trump's presidential campaign and transition.
Career staff warned the efforts would run afoul of the law requiring 123 agreements, but Flynn and Harvey, then the head of NSC's Middle East and North African affairs, pressed ahead, according to the report.
The National Security Council's ethics and legal advisers also concluded that Flynn had a potential conflict of interest that could violate the law and advised NSC staff to stop all work, the report added.
Days after Trump's inauguration, the report said, IP3 sent Flynn a memo intended for Trump to approve that endorsed the company's so-called Middle East Marshall Plan and named Barrack as the special representative to carry out the nuclear power proposal.
Barrack is a close friend of Trump's who ran his inaugural committee, which is under separate investigation by federal prosecutors in New York. Last week, Barrack defended the Saudis by saying atrocities in the United States are "equal or worse" to their killing of Khashoggi; he later apologized for the comments.
Barrack's name also appeared in the nuclear plans in mid-March 2017, according to the report, during a meeting where then-deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland reportedly said Trump told Barrack that he could lead the implementation of the plan.
On March 24, 2017, multiple employees raised concerns to the NSC legal adviser, according to the report. After that, then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster told staff they should stop all work on the proposal, according to the report.
"However, NSC staff remained concerned because the same individuals continued their work on IP3's proposal," the report said.
The report also notes ties between Kushner and one of the companies that could benefit from the sale of nuclear reactors to the Saudis, Westinghouse Electric. In 2018, a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management acquired the bankrupt Westinghouse. Meanwhile, in August, Brookfield purchased a partnership stake in 666 Fifth Avenue, a building owned by Kushner's family company.
The report comes a week before Kushner is embarking on a trip to sell his Middle East peace plan. The trip includes a stop in Riyadh and the administration envisions Saudi Arabia playing an integral role in the plan.
The investigation into the Trump administration's dealing with the Saudis comes after Cummings in January opened an investigation into the security clearance process the at White House.
The new probe is separate from matters known to be under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, meaning Democrats do not have to wait for him to go forward.
"This is one of the few issues that doesn't touch the Russian interference directly, and doesn't seem to be tied to a counterintelligence plot," said Mieke Eoyang, a former congressional staffer who is now vice president for Third Way's national security program. "This means that they don't have to wait for the Mueller investigation or other criminal investigation to conclude before diving in."