White House readies for tough probes that would follow a GOP takeover
The Washington Post April 22, 2022
WASHINGTON - The White House is preparing for a potential barrage of Republican-led congressional investigations next year, hiring new staffers and positioning itself to respond to aggressive inquiries if the GOP takes control of one or both chambers of Congress, according to people familiar with the moves.
Senior officials have begun strategizing on how various White House departments, especially the counsel's office, may be restructured to respond to an onslaught of investigative requests if Democrats lose control of the House or the Senate in November's midterm elections, as many in both parties expect.
The moves reflect an expectation that newly ascendant House Republicans in particular would immediately launch oversight investigations into such matters as the business dealings of President Joe Biden's son Hunter, the rocky U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and other politically sensitive matters.
"If one or both houses flip control, if past is any indication, they will be faced with a slew of inquiries, much of which will be aimed at trying to do political damage to the president," said John Podesta, who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
Anita Dunn, a former top Biden adviser who remains close to the president, is returning to the White House in a senior adviser role with a broad portfolio, and she is expected to be involved in part in responding to potential GOP probes, according to four people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel moves. The White House declined to comment on Dunn.
Dunn joined the White House for the start of the administration as a senior adviser and left in August to return to SKDK, the Washington public affairs firm where she is a partner. The timeline of Dunn's return to the White House is still being finalized, as is the scope of her duties.
White House officials said Dunn's job will not be explicitly tied to the potential Republican investigations, but her return ensures the veteran Democratic operative will have a central role in what could emerge as a pitched political and legal battle between Biden and a raucous group of newly powerful House Republicans. Dunn did not respond to a request for comment.
The White House is also bringing on Ian Sams, formerly a spokesman for Vice President Harris's presidential campaign, where he was known as a hard-hitting and combative advocate - traits for which the White House looked in filling the role. Sams, who will start in the coming weeks, will have a communications role in the counsel's office focused on responding to congressional investigations, according to the people familiar with the matter. He currently works at the Department of Health and Human Services as a spokesman on covid response.
Podesta praised the White House's plan to hire someone like Sams to handle communications from the White House Counsel's Office, rather than referring inquiries on sensitive investigations to the White House press office. It is critical that senior White House leaders remain focused on executing the president's agenda and not get distracted or bogged down by investigations, he said.
"What you want to do is keep this out of the press room," Podesta said. "Keep it out of the Oval Office. Let the White House counsel manage the problem."
White House officials say their preparations are hardly surprising, given the Democrats' narrow majorities in Congress and the uncertain outcome of the midterm elections. Democrats hold a 12-member edge (221-209) in the House with five vacancies, while the Senate is tied 50-50, giving Harris the tiebreaking vote.
Biden officials also said the White House Counsel's Office had been structured to respond to Republican oversight efforts from the beginning. During the presidential transition, Biden's team had planned for Republicans to control the Senate; Democrats took control of the chamber in January 2021 after winning both runoff elections in Georgia.
A White House official said the office is fully staffed, including with lawyers who have experience from prior administrations.
The opposition party has long relished the committee chairmanships and subpoena power that come with a congressional majority, and has historically deployed them for substantive investigations, as well as to score political points.
The Senate committee investigating the Clinton-era Whitewater land deal in the mid-1990s, for example, held 60 sessions stretching over 300 hours and took depositions from 245 people. The probes tied up numerous White House staffers, forcing some to hire their own lawyers.
A House committee on the killings of Americans in Benghazi, Libya, spent $7 million, put then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the stand for 11 hours and released an 800-plus-page report, creating a long-running distraction for the Obama White House. Other investigations have been more bipartisan, although examples of that are increasingly rare.
With large factions of the Republican Party increasingly conspiracy-minded and loyal to former president Donald Trump, the possibilities are legion for investigations that would enmesh the Biden White House.
"We are going to take power after this next election," Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told reporters in December. "When we do, it's not going to be the days of Paul Ryan and Trey Gowdy and no real oversight and no real subpoenas. It's going to be the days of Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Dr. Gosar and myself."
Gaetz was referring to former House speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who left Congress in 2019, and former representative Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who headed the Benghazi committee. Reps. Gaetz, Greene, R-Ga., and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., are splashy conservative media stars who often make outlandish or explicitly false statements.
Republicans have already telegraphed a slew of investigations, particularly into Hunter Biden for his business dealings in foreign countries. Inquiries into the president's son could be particularly sensitive for the White House. Hunter has written extensively about his substance abuse issues, and the president remains highly protective of his family.
Hunter Biden has emerged as a lightning rod for conservatives, especially after a laptop purportedly belonging to him surfaced at the end of the 2020 election. Republicans have seized on files purported to be from the laptop as evidence of wrongdoing, while some Democrats have dismissed them as disinformation.
The Washington Post obtained a copy of the laptop's hard drive, and two security experts who examined the data at the request of The Post said thousands of emails are authentic communications. Among the emails The Post verified are details of a deal Hunter Biden developed with a Chinese energy conglomerate, CEFC China Energy, for which he was paid nearly $5 million. Most of the data could not be verified by the security experts.
Republicans have also started to launch investigations on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, releasing a report that argues the virus stemmed from a lab leak from a Chinese research facility. U.S. intelligence agencies have not reached the same conclusion, and many officials dispute the theory. But Republicans are likely to resurface their investigations while also expanding the probe into the Biden administration's handling of the pandemic response.
Another likely GOP target is the Biden's administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan, a decision that Republicans and some Democrats have strongly criticized. Republicans are particularly interested in probing the chaotic exit, which was punctuated by the death of 13 U.S. service members in an attack at the Kabul airport.
The Clinton era may provide a preview of what the Biden White House would face should the GOP capture the House, though the Clinton presidency was unusually scandal-prone. The Republicans who retook the House in 1994 for the first time in four decades were in a militant mood, and President Bill Clinton also faced a determined independent counsel in Kenneth Starr.
At various points, a significant proportion of Clinton's White House staff was tied up with responding to investigators' demands on issues including Whitewater and firings at the White House Travel Office. Podesta said that among the most consequential decisions the counsel's office has to make in such circumstances is when to assert executive privilege.
The Republican investigations could throw the Biden administration on the defensive on an array of issues heading toward the 2024 election, but Podesta also warned they could backfire if GOP leaders do not proceed deliberately.
"When things get overly partisan and too nakedly political, the public tends to tune them out," he said. "The Republicans have a hard time resisting doing that."