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Democrats Seek Records On Jared Kushner As Administration Tries To Stifle Oversight

House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings speaks with other Democrats at a Jan. 9 news conference to call for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Chip Somodevilla
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House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings speaks with other Democrats at a Jan. 9 news conference to call for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Updated at 5:52 p.m. ET

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee want to see White House records on the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his security clearance and his access to classified information.

In a letter to White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, the oversight panel's 18 Democrats question why Kushner's security clearance hasn't been revoked.

The Democrats say Kushner, one of President Trump's closest advisers, had meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the CEO of a Russian state-owned bank. They say he failed to disclose the meetings as he applied for security clearance and allowed administration officials to say he'd had no such meetings.

"It is unclear why Mr. Kushner continues to have access to classified information while these allegations are being investigated," says the letter, which seeks similar records on former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn was asked to resign in February after misleading Vice President Pence about his contacts and conversations with Kislyak during the transition period.

This and other investigative efforts put the Oversight Committee Democrats, led by ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at the center of a brewing battle over congressional oversight.

The Trump administration has ignored hundreds of congressional letters of inquiry.

It is also brandishing a legal opinion, crafted by the Justice Department, holding that most of Congress lacks the constitutional power to conduct oversight of the executive branch.

It isn't just an attack on Democrats, currently the minority party in both chambers on Capitol Hill.

"This is nonsense," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote to Trump earlier this month. Grassley is a champion of strong oversight and has been known to do investigations of executive branch agencies using just his personal staff.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this week dispatched a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House counsel Don McGahn, accusing the administration of waging "a campaign of increasing secrecy if not dishonesty." The letter was also signed by 25 other House Democrats.

The Justice Department's legal opinion takes a dismissive view toward individual members of Congress. It says the Constitution limits oversight powers — the authority to ask executive branch agencies for information on what they're doing — to committee chairs. That freezes out even most Republicans, the overwhelming majority of whom don't chair committees — and every Democrat on Capitol Hill.

Under this policy, when your local representative writes a letter asking questions about some problem, the agency most likely blows it off.

House Democrats now keep lists of their letters ignored by the administration. The total so far: 260, on issues ranging from infrastructure priorities to possible records of Russian financial ties to President Trump and his family.

In an interview with NPR, Grassley said the administration policy runs counter to "everything that every eighth-grade student has studied about checks and balances of government." Citing language from the presidential oath of office, he said the policy "eliminates the check of most members of Congress to see that the laws are faithfully executed by a president."

An administration spokesman told NPR the White House is reviewing Grassley's letter and looks forward to "a mutual understanding." The statement concluded, however, that the Justice Department document "accurately states the law and the legal obligations" for dealing with congressional requests.

Grassley told NPR that if the Trump White House doesn't act to roll back the policy, Congress can kill it through legislation.

The policy can sound innocuous. "The Justice Department said they should treat individual members of Congress' requests for information as Freedom of Information Act requests like anyone in the public can send in," said Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. "So this is a bit of a subtle change, but it's important."

Not all agency heads are taking as hard a line as the Justice Department. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told a Senate hearing this month that his department would respond to all congressional inquiries, "regardless of who the letter comes from, and it doesn't have to just come from a ranking member or chairman."

Then there's the "seven-member rule," which requires executive branch agencies to deliver any information requested by at least seven members of the House Oversight Committee. The rule dates from 1928 and isn't well-known, but it was most recently invoked just five months ago.

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., contrasts the administration's position with Trump's "drain the swamp" rhetoric last fall. He told NPR, "They certainly put an emphasis, with this idea of draining the swamp, on accountability and transparency. But so far, they seem to have moved in the complete opposite direction."

The Trump administration may also stumble over the bipartisan institutional loyalties that run deep on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in an interview, "The idea that the legislative branch would willingly go along with this kind of an assault on its powers by the executive branch runs contrary to the interests of every senator."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.