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There's Room To Negotiate Congressional Subpoenas, Groves Says


How much congressional oversight of the Trump administration is too much? The White House is resisting a series of demands from the House of Representatives. It is normal that any president jostles with Congress over the exact limits of each branch's power, but our colleague Mara Liasson says the sheer number of conflicts is rare.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: This is an across-the-board refusal. The president said that he was going to fight all the subpoenas. It's Don McGahn's testimony. It's access to the full Mueller report, the underlying materials and the redactions. It's Attorney General Barr testifying before the House. It's the president's tax returns. The president has also tweeted he doesn't want Bob Mueller to testify.

INSKEEP: All these disputes grow out of Democratic efforts to investigate the president's finances and also examine the special counsel probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. One question is Attorney General Barr's refusal to testify before a House committee. And the committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler, was asked about that this morning.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So will your committee move forward with a contempt vote?

JERROLD NADLER: Absolutely. We have no choice.

INSKEEP: So what is the White House's goal here? Earlier, we spoke with Steven Groves. He's a special assistant to the president and deputy press secretary for the White House. And we asked if it's the president's plan to say no to all of Congress' requests.

STEVEN GROVES: No, far from it. And, in fact, the president and his legal team have said yes to reasonable requests by members of the House of Representatives, whether it's on the security clearance process or on other matters that they're engaging in legitimate oversight in the various agencies of the government. So I'd have to disagree with Mara - who I work with, who comes and sees me at the White House often - that this is some type of blanket prohibition. As she said (ph) ...

INSKEEP: Although the president has put it in those - in that - those terms. He's essentially defined the House of Representatives as Democrats. They're in the other party. And therefore, he's not going to cooperate with them.

GROVES: I mean, he is stating his point of view on that. And then he leaves it to his attorneys to execute his directives. But each item that comes in is assessed on its own merits and each has its own separate negotiation, whether it's with Chairman Nadler or Chairman Cummings or other members of the Democratic caucus. So each thing is assessed on its own merits.

INSKEEP: Although, when you talk about sovereign branches of government, the House has the power to issue subpoenas. And if I, as a citizen, were to get a subpoena from a federal prosecutor, say, I don't get to decide whether that's reasonable or not. I have to comply. I can maybe argue in court, but I have to comply. Why would the president be the one to get to decide if the House is issuing a reasonable subpoena?

GROVES: Well, if you were issued a subpoena, Steve, that said we're demanding that you come in court and what we want you to talk about are your conversations with your attorney - trust me, that would not be a legitimate subpoena and would not be enforceable. And it would be very much in your right to point that out at the time or in court to a judge if you needed to. But just because you get subpoenaed doesn't mean they're allowed to have the information that they're demanding.

INSKEEP: And is that the basis on which you would resist allowing Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to testify about matters that, by the way, are already public thanks to the Mueller report - that Don McGahn resisted the president's efforts to have the special counsel fired during the special counsel's investigation?

GROVES: Well, the only matter that's been pushed back on so far are - is not Don McGahn's testimony but documents...

INSKEEP: Documents, sure.

GROVES: ...That are in Don McGahn's attorney's possession, which are White House documents that Chairman Nadler demanded to be turned over without seeking any accommodation, without doing any negotiation, without trying to pare it down and with no regard to the president's executive privilege concerns. So that's what happened yesterday, and that's where we are. We - I think that there will be a negotiation between Chairman Nadler and the White House if Chairman Nadler so chooses, or he can continue to go on this path of being precipitous with the subpoenas and acting outside the bounds of the law.

INSKEEP: OK. So I think you're telling me there is room to negotiate here, and there is a possibility of an agreement in which documents are turned over after you've had some discussion. Is that what you're saying?

GROVES: There's always room to engage in accommodation, which is a process required by the law, recognized under the D.C. Circuit Law, where you're trying to figure out disputes between these two branches of governments. And so when - and on investigations that have happened so far, in some cases, accommodations have been reached. Whether such an accommodation may be reached on these particular documents remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other question here in the seconds that we have left. The president has said that the Mueller report clears him. Others have described that report very differently, we should note. But the Mueller report also is very definitive about the fact that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in specific ways. Does the president accept that? And is the president determined to prevent Russian interference in 2020?

GROVES: I haven't asked the president whether he's accepted the baseline, downright conclusion of the collusion side - pardon me - the interference side of things. But, you know, he's taken a great number of steps, including executive orders and working with state and local governments through Department of Homeland Security, to ensure additional elections interference does not happen, not by Russia but by any other country.

INSKEEP: Mr. Groves, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

GROVES: Thanks for having me on, Steve.

INSKEEP: Steven Groves is special assistant to President Trump. And NPR's Mara Liasson has been listening in.

Mara, what did you hear there?

LIASSON: Well, what I heard was that this isn't a blanket refusal. It's kind of, watch what we do not what he tweets or says. That is the message I got. The president did say, we're fighting all the subpoenas. But as Groves just pointed out, they are negotiating. And they have cooperated with congressional oversight in some cases. So that - yep.

INSKEEP: It was notable - wasn't it, Mara? - that Groves also said the president tweets his point of view and then turns it over to the staff, who, he seemed to suggest, might well do something different than what their boss just said in writing in public.

LIASSON: Right. I think there are a lot of investigations that the House is conducting, so there are a lot of conflicts about what documents and what people can testify. And some of this is a matter of negotiation, and some of these things are going to go to the courts to decide what is truly legitimate oversight. That's the question here - what Steven Groves just laid out is the White House doesn't believe that some of these requests are legitimate. In the end, the courts decide that. Congress does have the constitutional right and responsibility to conduct oversight, but the president also has privileges, like executive privilege, to shield certain confidential documents and conversations. And this is going to be a protracted battle that's going to go on for some time. And one of the things that might happen is it just goes on even after the next election.

INSKEEP: OK. Mara, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.