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President Donald Trump recently offered some inaccurate remarks to reporters about the congressional investigations into his campaign and his business practices.
Trump’s comments came after House Democrats released a list of 81 people who will be receiving document requests related to ongoing congressional investigations. Here’s what Trump said during the March 5 White House event:
"Instead of doing infrastructure, instead of doing health care, instead of doing so many things that they should be doing, they want to play games. President Obama, from what they tell me, was under a similar kind of a thing — didn’t give one letter. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t give one letter of the request. Many requests were made; they didn’t give a letter."
Trump’s point that the Obama administration stonewalled all congressional demands for information is wrong.
Veterans of the Obama administration immediately shot back.
And they have a point. As we’ve reported, the Obama administration — contrary to what Trump previously asserted — did participate in significant congressional oversight efforts. Here are some of the major investigations during Obama’s presidency:
• Loans to the solar company Solyndra. The company collapsed after taking a $535 million federal loan guarantee, and Republicans noted that a campaign bundler for Obama was a key investor. The loan default prompted an investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
• Alleged political bias at the Internal Revenue Service. This controversy involved charges that IRS officials were unfairly targeting conservative groups for unusual scrutiny in applications to become a tax-exempt organization. This attracted an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, and a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.
• The Benghazi consulate terrorist attack in 2012, in which four Americans died, including the U.S. ambassador. The circumstances surrounding the attack were investigated by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, several House panels led by the House Intelligence Committee, and a specially created House Benghazi committee.
• The "gun-walking" program known as Fast & Furious, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, partly during Obama’s presidency, allowed guns to be sold to Mexican nationals in the hopes of tracking down drug cartel leaders. The program was investigated jointly by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For the most part, the Obama administration did turn over documents demanded by lawmakers.
For instance, the Solyndra investigation looked at 300,000 documents, the IRS investigation looked at 1.3 million, the Benghazi probes looked at hundreds of thousands, and Fast & Furious looked at more than 10,000.
It’s worth noting that the Obama administration didn’t hand over documents willy-nilly. On occasion, the administration opposed turning over documents. This happened in the investigations over Solyndra, Fast & Furious, and Benghazi. But noncooperation was generally struck down in the courts, and the administration eventually handed over the documents.
"Some documents were withheld and the administration cited specific reasons for withholding those documents," said Eric Schickler, a University of California-Berkeley political scientist who co-authored the book "Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power." "I cannot say if those reasons were ‘good’ or not, but they were not withheld in a blanket or wholesale manner."
Douglas Kriner, Schickler’s co-author and a government professor at Cornell University, said the push-pull dynamic over documents between the executive and legislative branches is as old as the republic, dating to investigations of a military disaster in the Ohio frontier under President George Washington.
"So the Obama administration precedents are consistent with past practice," Kriner said. "Any effort to cite them to justify mass-scale noncompliance with recent requests for documentation from the White House is disingenuous."
That said, the comparison between the Obama and Trump administrations is not entirely apples-to-apples.
We’re not aware of any congressional investigations into Obama’s personal finances, as is happening to Trump. (Obama’s business and real estate holdings were trivial compared to Trump’s.) The four investigations outlined above tended to focus on activities of executive branch agencies rather than the White House itself.
"I do not know of any major investigations of the Obama White House itself," said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor who previously served as solicitor and deputy general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.
When Elise J. Bean, a Wayne State law professor, worked for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations from 1999 to 2014 — a period that partially overlapped with Obama’s presidency — she didn’t recall ever sending a document request letter to the White House. By contrast, "we sent lots of document requests to agencies like the Federal Reserve, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security."
The Trump White House did not respond to an inquiry for this article.
Trump said that when Congress sought documents from Obama, the White House "didn’t do anything. They didn’t give one letter of the request. Many requests were made. They didn’t give a letter."
That’s not what happened. The Obama administration gave hundreds of thousands of documents to Congress in at least four investigations. For a fraction of those documents, the administration went to court to try to head off the request, but courts generally sided with Congress, and the documents were ultimately handed over. Experts say the scenario is typical of the longstanding skirmishing between the executive and legislative branches.
The documents handed over were mostly those of executive branch agencies, rather than the White House. In large part, that’s because questions never arose about Obama’s personal finances.
Trump's claim is ridiculous— so we rate it Pants on Fire!
Donald Trump, remarks at the White House, March 5, 2019
Eric Schultz, tweet, March 5, 2019
New York Times, "Trump’s False Claim That Obama ‘Didn’t Give One Letter’ to Congressional Inquiries," March 5, 2019
CNN, "Fact-checking Trump's claim that Obama refused to comply with requests from Congress," March 6, 2019
FactCheck.org, "Trump Wrong About Obama Documents," March 7, 2019
The Hill, "The 81 names targeted in Democrats' expansive Trump probe," March 4, 2019
PolitiFact, "Yes, President Trump, Congress also investigated Barack Obama," Feb. 7, 2019
Email interview with Charles Tiefer, University of Baltimore law professor, March 7, 2019
Email interview with Elise J. Bean, Wayne State law professor, March 7, 2019
Email interview with Eric Schickler, University of California-Berkeley political scientist and co-author of the book "Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power," March 7, 2019
Email interview with Douglas Kriner, government professor at Cornell University and co-author of the book "Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power," March 7, 2019
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