White House rejects House Democrats' request for Trump-Putin communications

House Oversight Chair Cummings accused the White House of "stonewalling."

March 21, 2019, 6:45 PM

The White House rejected a request from Congressional Democrats for a slew of documents related to President Donald Trump's phone calls and meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, in a letter sent Thursday to the chairmen of the House Oversight, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence Committees, said that Congress has demonstrated no legal or constitutional authority to gain access to the president's diplomatic communications.

"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 purpose," Cipollone wrote.

"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 related to confidential diplomatic communications between the president and foreign leaders," he said in the letter.

PHOTO: House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks during the House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 14, 2019.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks during the House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 14, 2019.
Jose Luis Magana/AP

Cipollone writes that there is an "unbroken recognition that the Constitution assigns the conduct of foreign affairs exclusively to the Executive Branch" and says that Democrats failed to cite any law or regulation that would justify their right to access the president's communications other than the Presidential Records Act, with which he insists the White House is in proper compliance.

Earlier this month, three House Democrats requested that the White House and State Department turn over detailed information about any communications between Trump and Putin. The letter, signed by Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff, Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Eliot Engel, and Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings, was sent to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Democrats have sought to investigate whether or not Russia has influenced the president, and point to media reports that Trump has attempted to “conceal the details of his communications with President Putin.” Investigators argue that the president’s actions are a threat to national security and present concerns that the president may have been manipulated by Russia.

But White House counsel argues that Democrats are making an overly broad request for "detailed information related to the President's meetings and telephone calls with Russian president Vladimir Putin," in addition to "confidential communications" between the president and top advisers.

Cummings has accused the White House of “stonewalling.”

“The problem is that the White House is engaged in an unprecedented level of stonewalling, delay and obstruction,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, wrote in a scathing Washington Post editorial Tuesday.

Chairman Cummings, D-Md., noted, “The White House has not turned over a single piece of paper to our committee or made a single official available for testimony during the 116th Congress.”

The same goes for the House Judiciary Committee whose chairman, Jerrold Nadler of New York, launched a wide-ranging probe earlier this month into allegations of obstruction of justice and abuse of power by the president.

The president initially indicated that he would cooperate with the Judiciary Committee, but White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders just hours later called the probe “a disgraceful and abusive investigation into tired, false allegations.”

Despite that pointed criticism, ABC News has learned from sources familiar with the matter that the White House does plan to reply to some requests, though they only intend to respond to those they deem “legitimate.”

It’s unclear what that would mean.

In Thursday’s letter, White House counsel Cipollone said he is "unaware of any precedent supporting such sweeping requests."

House Democrats have compiled a list - obtained by ABC News – that indicates that the Trump Administration, writ large, has either refused to respond to or slow-walked, more than 30 inquiries for documents and interviews by 15 committees.

This week, Chairman Nadler also ratcheted up the pressure on the president to assert executive privilege. The panel is interested in conversations Trump may have had about his former attorney Michael Cohen with his then-acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker who left his post last month after the confirmation of William Barr.

According to Nadler - in a letter to the head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department - Whitaker, in a follow-up interview with the Judiciary Committee after a public hearing in February, refused to answer questions “on the basis that the President may one day want to invoke executive privilege to prevent the content of these communications from becoming public.”

“The executive branch has an obligation to respond to congressional oversight, especially where a committee has articulated its particular need for access to the information,” said John Bies who worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and is now chief counsel at American Oversight. “Certainly this letter ratchets up the pressure on the White House either to permit Whitaker to answer the questions or to actually invoke executive privilege.”

“A "my way or the highway" approach to oversight is fundamentally inconsistent with the notion that ours is a government of checks and balances, and that each branch is obligated to try in good faith to accommodate the legitimate interests of the other,” Bies added.

Both chairmen, Nadler and Cummings, made clear this week that they intend to issue subpoenas for the documents they are seeking. Last year Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee blocked a move by Democrats to subpoena the State Department translator in the room during Trump and Putin’s private meeting in Helsinki.

ABC News' Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.

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