Inside the White House’s months of prep-work for a GOP investigative onslaught

Inside the White House’s months of prep-work for a GOP investigative onslaught
Washington — More than four months before voters handed Republicans control of the House of Representatives, top White House and Department of Homeland Security officials huddled in the Roosevelt Room to prepare for that very scenario.

The department and its secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, had emerged as top targets of Republican ire over the Biden administration’s border security policies – ire that is certain to fuel aggressive congressional investigations with Republicans projected to narrowly reclaim the House majority and the subpoena power that comes with it.

Sitting around the large conference table in the Roosevelt Room, White House lawyers probed senior DHS officials about their preparations for the wide-ranging Republican oversight they had begun to anticipate, including Republicans’ stated plans to impeach Mayorkas, two sources familiar with the meeting said.

Convened by Richard Sauber, a veteran white-collar attorney hired in May to oversee the administration’s response to congressional oversight, the meeting was one of several the White House has held since the summer with lawyers from across the administration – including the Defense Department, State Department and Justice Department.

The point, people familiar with the effort said, has been to ensure agencies are ready for the coming investigative onslaught  and to coordinate an administration-wide approach.

While President Joe Biden and Democrats campaigned to preserve their congressional majorities, a small team of attorneys, communications strategists and legislative specialists have spent the past few months holed up in Washington preparing for the alternative, two administration officials said.

The preparations, largely run out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building near the White House, are among the earliest and most comprehensive by any administration ahead of a midterm election and highlight how far-reaching and aggressive Republican investigations are expected to be.

Along with Sauber, this spring the White House hired veteran Democratic communications aide Ian Sams as spokesman for the White House counsel’s office. Top Biden adviser Anita Dunn returned to the White House in the spring, in part to oversee the administration’s preparations for a GOP-controlled Congress.

The Justice Department is also bracing for investigations, bringing in well-known government transparency attorney Austin Evers to help respond to legislative oversight. Evers is the founder of the group American Oversight and served as its executive director until this year, and previously handled the oversight response at the State Department.

Studying Jordan and Comer

The White House is preparing to hire additional lawyers and other staff to beef up its oversight response team in the next two months, before the new Congress convenes in January, administration officials said. The hires will bolster Sauber’s current team of about 10 lawyers, a source familiar with the matter said.

In piecing together GOP targets and strategy, the team has paid close attention to Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and James Comer of Kentucky, the two Republicans who are likely to lead much of the investigations under a GOP-controlled House and have spent months telegraphing their intentions in TV interviews and oversight letters.

Jim Jordan and James Comer.

Jim Jordan and James Comer.

 Their opening salvo will come Thursday, when Comer and Jordan host a joint news conference to preview the various investigations into President Joe Biden’s family.

Even though the Republican majority is poised to be much thinner than expected – with a likely margin of just a couple seats – all indications are that House Republicans are poised to push ahead with a wide-ranging set of investigations into all corners of the Biden administration, including the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Covid-19 vaccine mandates and the Justice Department’s handling of the various investigations related to Donald Trump.

Republicans are also intent on investigating the president’s family, particularly his son, Hunter Biden. 

With little chance of passing much legislation in a deadlocked Congress, investigations are shaping up to be the focal point of how a House Republican majority wields its power.

“You’re gonna have a bunch of chairmen who are totally on their own, doing whatever the hell they want without regard for what the national political implications are,” said Brendan Buck, a former top adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said he believes GOP leader Kevin McCarthy will have “very little leash” to rein in those investigative pursuits.

House Republicans have already sent over 500 letters to the administration requesting that they preserve documents, key committees have hired new legal counsels to help with investigations, and leadership has hosted classes for staffers on how to best use the oversight tools at their disposal.

Meanwhile, McCarthy’s office has been working with likely committee chairs over the last several months to delegate who is going to be investigating what, according to a source familiar with the matter.

“It’s like a clearing house,” the source said.

But the GOP’s push for aggressive investigations could run into resistance from the moderate wing of the GOP, who want to use their newfound majority to address key legislative priorities – not just pummel Hunter Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci. While McCarthy has vowed to conduct rigorous oversight, he will have to strike a delicate balance between the demands of the competing factions in his party.

White House officials believe Republicans are bound to overstep and that their investigative overreach will backfire with the American public. In the meantime, they are prepared to push back forcefully, believing that many proposed investigations are based on conspiracy theories and politically motivated charges.

“President Biden is not going to let these political attacks distract him from focusing on Americans’ priorities, and we hope congressional Republicans will join us in tackling them instead of wasting time and resources on political revenge,” Sams, the spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, said in a statement to CNN.

‘We look forward to seeing you in January’

The House’s expected razor-thin majority is likely to make it more difficult to take steps like impeaching members of Biden’s Cabinet – or even the president himself. But that doesn’t mean, sources told CNN, they’re not going to try, particularly when it comes to the border and Mayorkas.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, on Capitol Hill on May 04, 2022.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, on Capitol Hill on May 04, 2022.

On Tuesday, the House Homeland Security Committee provided a preview of what is to come. Over the course of a marathon four-hour hearing, Republican lawmakers grilled Mayorkas over the influx of migrants at the southern border, the number of people who evade Border Patrol capture, and encounters with people on the border who are on the terror watch list.

Throughout, Mayorkas stood his ground, maintaining that the border is “secure” and batting down criticism that it’s “open” as Republicans have claimed.

At one point, Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana foreshadowed more testimony next year, telling Mayorkas: “We look forward to seeing you in January.”

Mayorkas, officials said, remains undeterred by the threats of impeachment and intends to stay at the helm of the department, a point he reiterated Tuesday. Still, one person close to Mayorkas told CNN that the DHS chief is “nervous” about impending GOP investigations and the potential of being continually hauled before Congress by hostile Republican committee chairs.

“Don’t let the bastards win,” one US official familiar with Mayorkas’ thinking said when asked to sum up the DHS chief’s attitude toward potential GOP investigations on border issues and impeachment.

“We will respond to legitimate inquiries,” the official said. “We’re not going to feed into what might wind up as kabuki theater.”

DHS already responds to hundreds of congressional inquiries per month, according to a Homeland Security official, who added the department has been preparing for months for any potential increase in congressional activity. The department is also ready to “aggressively respond to attempts to mischaracterize the strong record” of the DHS work force, as well as “politically motivated attempts to attack the secretary,” the official said.

DHS officials considered hiring outside legal counsel to prepare for the potential onslaught of Republican scrutiny but ultimately chose not to, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.   Ricki Seidman, a senior counselor to Mayorkas and former senior Justice Department official, has been involved in DHS’s preparation for the GOP oversight, the source added.

 Another Homeland Security official said that the Border Patrol along with Customs and Border Protection “are going to take the most heat.”

The Hunter Biden probes

The most politically charged investigations next year are poised to be those into the president’s son Hunter Biden.

Top Republicans have largely been more than happy for Comer to take on the leading role of investigating Hunter Biden, multiple sources said.  Jordan does not plan to be intimately involved in the Hunter Biden probe but will provide public support for Comer, including appearing with him at the upcoming press conference.

“We’re going to lay out what we have thus far on Hunter Biden, and the crimes we believe he has committed,” Comer told CNN earlier this month just before the election. “And then we’re going to be very clear and say what we are investigating, and who we’re gonna ask to meet with us for transcribed interviews.”

Hunter Biden has denied wrongdoing in his business activities.

Hunter Biden, the son of President Joe Biden, attends a ceremony at the White House on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Hunter Biden, the son of President Joe Biden, attends a ceremony at the White House on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Behind the scenes though, Jordan and other soon-to-be powerful Republican lawmakers – including likely chairman of House Intelligence Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio – have sought to distance their committees from the Hunter Biden investigation in favor of other investigative pursuits they deem to be “more serious,” the sources said.

The handling of Republican investigations related to Hunter Biden will fall to Hunter Biden’s own attorneys, while Bob Bauer, the president’s personal attorney, will handle related matters related to Joe Biden’s personal capacity that do not touch on his official duties. Bauer, who is married to Dunn, and White House attorneys have already met to divvy up workflow over potential lines of inquiries to ensure there are clear lanes of responsibility between investigations that touch on Joe Biden’s official role as president and vice president and his personal life.

‘We know it’s coming’

Another key point of interest is likely to be the administration’s handling of the August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, which led to the death of 13 Marines and nearly 200 Afghans when a bomb exploded at the Kabul airport.

At the State Department, a small group of officials has already begun planning for the coming investigations into Afghanistan, officials said. While that group will work with Sauber’s team at the White House, State Department officials expect to take the lead in handling GOP inquiries into Afghanistan.

The department has not hired new people to work on these efforts, but certain officials who are already at the department expect to spend a lot more of their time responding to the congressional inquiries, officials said.

The Republican investigation into the withdrawal is likely to be led by Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs committee. McCaul and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have historically had a good relationship, which State Department officials are hoping will be an important factor.

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021

Administration officials said they plan to take McCaul’s inquiry seriously because they expect he will demonstrate a seriousness of purpose, instead of making bombastic demands like some other Republicans. And House Republican aides said they plan to explore the administration’s willingness to work with them before issuing subpoenas.

“If they’ll meet us in the middle by giving us some documents instead of all documents, or agreeing to turn over certain individuals but not all of the individuals for interviews, then that’s a start,” said one of the GOP aides familiar with the plans. “But if they just want to be completely obstructive and say no to every single request, then you’ll see subpoenas fairly soon.”

The department concluded its own review of the withdrawal in March, but the findings of that report have not been shared publicly, officials said. While it was expected to be put out earlier this year, State Department officials said the White House is making that determination, and they are unsure of where that decision stands. House Republicans want to see that report.

At the Pentagon, officials are bracing for the possibility of public grilling at televised hearings on everything from Afghanistan to views about “wokeness” in the force and the discharging of troops who refused to take the Covid-19 vaccine.

“We know it’s coming,” one administration official said.

 Both Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose term expires at the end of September 2023, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who appears determined to stay until the end of the Biden administration, have faced sharp criticism from congressional Republicans and know the coming months may be a rough political ride, officials said.

Milley has been a particular target for Republicans for his well-known efforts to keep the final weeks of the Trump presidency from careening into a national security crisis.

Both Milley and Austin have pushed back forcefully on GOP accusations that the military is “woke,” a topic that’s likely to become a focal point for some Republicans in the coming months.

‘Feed the base red meat’

“This is going to be a Congress under Republican control like no other,” said Rafi Prober, a congressional investigations specialist with the law firm Akin Gump who previously worked in the Obama administration.

Aaron Cutler, the head of the Washington government investigations group at law firm Hogan Lovells and a former Republican congressional leadership staffer, said the partisan investigations serve to “feed the base red meat.”

But Cutler said he has heard from conservatives that the tepid result for Republicans in the midterm elections may translate to less “silliness in politics,” he said. “The American people are pushing back, and saying we want government to work.”

That is exactly the calculation the White House and congressional Democrats are making. A senior House Democratic source said that aggressive attacks on Biden’s son could backfire, adding that congressional Democrats were gearing up to defend the president by calling out “lies and hypocrisy.”

Still, with the GOP investigations in mind, a team of White House lawyers has in recent weeks and months advised senior White House staff on how “not to be seen as influencing politically sensitive missions at (departments and agencies),” a source familiar with the matter told CNN.

Asked at his press conference last week about the prospect of GOP investigations, including into his son, Biden said: “I think the American people will look at all of that for what it is. It’s just almost comedy. … Look, I can’t control what they’re going to do.”

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