White House rejects Dem request for documents on Trump-Putin communications

The White House is rejecting a sweeping request from House Democrats for documents and interviews related to President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a letter obtained by The Hill, White House counsel Pat Cipollone asserts that the president’s diplomatic communications are confidential and protected by executive privilege and describes the requests as beyond Congress’s legitimate realm of inquiry.

Cipollone also argues that such a disclosure could have a detrimental impact on the ability of Trump or future presidents to conduct foreign relations.

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“The President must be free to engage in discussions with foreign leaders without fear that those communications will be disclosed and used as fodder for partisan political purposes.  And foreign leaders must be assured of this as well,” Cipollone writes in the letter sent Thursday to House committee chairmen Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records Democrats approve two articles of impeachment against Trump in Judiciary vote MORE (D-Calif.), Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCongressional investigation finds Coast Guard leadership fell short on handling bullying Trump request for Ukrainian 'favor' tops notable quote list Impeachment can't wait MORE (D-Md.) and Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelBombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' House Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump MORE (D-N.Y.).

“This is why, from the Nation's beginning, Presidents from all political parties have determined that the law does not require the Executive Branch to provide Congress with documents relating to confidential diplomatic communications between the President and foreign leaders,” he writes.

Schiff, Cummings and Engel — who chair the Intelligence, Oversight and Reform and Foreign Affairs committees, respectively – sent letters to the White House and State Department in early March seeking a slew of documents and transcribed interviews with executive branch staff related to a burgeoning investigation into Trump’s communications with Putin.

The request is one of several that the White House is contending with as House Democrats move forward with a series of probes into Trump, his administration and business dealings.

In a statement issued Thursday evening, the Democratic committee chairs described the letter as continuing "a troubling pattern by the Trump Administration of rejecting legitimate and necessary congressional oversight with no regard for precedent or the constitution."

They also accused Trump of breaking with past precedent, describing a willingness by previous administrations to make officials available for interviews and produce documents related to the conduct of foreign relations.

"President Trump's decision to break with this precedent raises the question of what he has to hide," the Democrats said.

The Democrats’ request followed a a January Washington Post report that Trump had sought to keep details of his communications with Putin secret, including at one point taking the notes of an interpreter present for his conversation with Putin on the sidelines of the 2017 Group of 20 (G-20) meeting in Hamburg. Trump later dismissed the report as “ridiculous” in an interview with Fox News.  

“These allegations, if true, raise profound counterintelligence and foreign policy concerns, especially in light of Russia’s ongoing active measures campaign to improperly influence American elections,” the Democrats wrote in a March 4 letter to White House acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' MORE laying out their document request.

“In addition, such allegations, if true, undermine the proper functioning of government, most notably the State Department’s access to critical information germane to its diplomatic mission and its ability to develop and execute foreign policy that advances our national interests,” they wrote. They also raised concerns Trump may have violated a federal law governing records preservation.

The committee chairmen asked the White House for unredacted copies of documents referring or related to: in-person meetings between Trump and Putin or preparations for those meetings, telephone calls between Trump and Putin, records of any written communications between or about communications between Trump and Putin, guidance provided to the White House or agency personnel concerning federal records laws and compliance or noncompliance with federal records laws.

They also asked the White House to allow the committees to conduct transcribed interviews with “all White House or Executive Office of the President employees, contractors, or detailees, whether current or former, with knowledge of these communications.”

This includes interpreters and other staff who participated in or attended the meetings between Trump and Putin or listened in on their phone calls, as well as personnel involved in staffing the 2017 G-20 meeting and Trump’s one-on-one summit with Putin in Helsinki last July.

The House chairmen also separately wrote to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump greeted with cheers at 120th Army-Navy game Judge orders State Dept. to search for and provide more Ukraine docs Pompeo launches personal Twitter account amid speculation over Senate run MORE with a near identical document and transcribed interview request.

The deadline for the White House and State Department to respond was March 15.

Cippolone’s letter cites federal case law and several opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued over the last four decades in arguing that the president has the exclusive authority to conduct foreign policy and therefore the House chairs’ request is beyond the scope of Congress’ oversight responsibilities.

“It is settled law that the Constitution entrusts the conduct of foreign relations exclusively to the Executive Branch, as it makes the President ‘the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,’” states the five-page letter.

Cipollone also writes that the committees in their request “cite no legal authority for the proposition that another branch of the government can force the President to disclose diplomatic communications with foreign leaders or that supports forcing disclosure of the confidential internal deliberations of the President's national security advisors.”

The Democrats asserted in their earlier letter that Congress has a constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the White House and State Department, including to determine the impact of Trump’s communications with Putin on U.S. foreign policy and whether the president has complied with laws and regulations applicable to procedures surrounding diplomatic talks.

Democrats could look to subpoena the White House for the documents and testimony — a move that would almost certainly trigger a battle in the courts.

In their subsequent statement, the Democratic chairs said they "will be consulting on appropriate next steps."

"Congress has a constitutional duty to conduct oversight and investigate these matters, and we will fulfill that responsibility," the lawmakers said.

Trump came under intense criticism from both parties following his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, when he appeared to cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election during a press conference alongside the Russian president. Trump later walked back his remarks, saying he accepts the intelligence community’s findings.

Democrats have since sought to compel the administration to share more information about the private meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki.

Last July, Republicans blocked an effort by Schiff and other Democrats to subpoena the American translator present for the Helsinki meeting to testify before Congress in a closed session. At the time, former officials from Democratic and Republican administrations argued that subpoenaing the interpreter would set a dangerous precedent.

Democrats’ renewed scrutiny of Trump’s communications with Putin comes as special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE is believed to be wrapping up his investigation into Russia's election interference and links between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Trump has consistently denied that his campaign colluded with Moscow to meddle in the election, branding the investigation a “witch hunt.” He has also accused Democrats investigating his administration as engaging in “presidential harassment.”

Updated 7:15 p.m.