A lot has happened since January 6th. That’s when you first responded to my concerns that President-elect Trump might violate the Constitution while you and the GOP-controlled Congress would do nothing to stop him. You assured me that there was no danger because of our three-branch government and your commitment to “uphold our Constitution and put the interests of the citizens of the 6th District of Virginia and the country as a whole above the interests of any individual or political party.”
I have since written to you several more times with even greater and more specific concerns about President Trump, including allegations of Russian blackmail, his refusal to release his tax records, and most recently his ban on seven Muslim-majority countries—a ban which federal judges have already declared illegal.
And yet, despite these developments, I received a nearly identical email from you yesterday. You changed one sentence. Your first letter read: “Donald Trump has been elected …” Your new letter reads: “As you know, on January 20, Donald Trump was sworn in …” Otherwise they are identical, even your use of future tense to describe the power President Trump “will” have.
But that power is no longer in the future. We are witnessing it daily. And we are also witnessing your daily failures to uphold your promise. Instead of checking the executive branch, you are putting the interests of your political party far ahead of our country as a whole. The President’s ban appears to be both illegal and unconstitutional, and yet you continue to praise it. His repeated refusals to divulge his conflicts of interests violate the norms of government, and yet you say nothing. Russian blackmail would be treasonous, but you have opened no investigation.
And when constituents ask for an explanation of your behavior, you update a form letter copied from a high school textbook.
Dear Mr. Gavaler:
Thank you for contacting me regarding your concerns about President Donald Trump. I appreciate hearing from you.
As you know, on January 20, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. I hope his presidency will be successful for our country and the American people. As President, he will have the power to execute the law under Article II of the Constitution. Likewise, Congress will have the power to write the law under Article I of the Constitution, and the Supreme Court will have the power to review the constitutionality of statutes and presidential actions. Our constitutional system of three co-equal branches of government and a Bill of Rights therefore prevent one branch from assuming too much authority without a challenge from the other branches of government.
You have my assurance that I will continue to uphold our Constitution and put the interests of the citizens of the 6th District of Virginia and the country as a whole above the interests of any individual or political party. I look forward to working with my fellow Members of Congress and the President to achieve solutions to the challenges our country faces.
I appreciate you taking the time to contact me. I feel it is important to keep an open line of communication so I can best serve the interests of Virginia’s 6th District. I hope you will continue to be in touch as Congress debates issues of importance to the United States.
Member of Congress
I just read that you are privately urging your fellow Congressmen to repeal but not replace the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. This contradicts your public statements. You said you “want the families who are hurting under Obamacare to feel relief as quickly possible.” But if you repeal Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, you will permanently worsen those hurting families. How can you tell your constituents one thing, while taking actions to do exactly the opposite? You publish your public statements on your website, but your recent behind-closed-door comments only became public because you didn’t know you were being recorded. Are you intentionally deceiving your own constituents? How can voters trust you when you speak so differently in those two situations? If you believe healthcare is unimportant and that millions of Americans who currently have it should lose it, then come out and say that directly. Don’t pretend to feel compassion for hurting families when your plan is to make their lives worse. Like a majority of Virginians, I believe a permanent repeal of the ACA Medicaid expansion is immoral. If you feel differently, stand up and stand by your convictions.
Although a majority of voters are not optimistic about President Trump’s ability to run the country, a majority still approve of his message. I just read a survey that reported that 72% agreed with this passage from his inauguration speech:
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you.”
This confuses me because the GOP has controlled the Senate for the last two years and the House for the last six. You personally have been in office for a quarter century. You’ve been Chair of the House Judiciary Committee for three years, after already serving as Chair of the House Agriculture Committee while President Bush was in office. You are a leading and long-standing member of the establishment.
The President is identifying you and other current GOP leaders as the small group of flourishing politicians reaping the rewards of government. Is this why you are so hesitant to criticize him? Your balanced budget amendment would block his Great Wall and infrastructure plans. His claims of massive voter fraud are widely dismissed, but you support them. Even though his failure to release his taxes falls far below the “highest standards” you have previously championed, you have said nothing about his conflicts of interest. Is your strategy to so align yourself with the President that you avoid the criticism of his populist message?
I have already written to you about my concerns over the Muslim ban. I’ve also written about your lack of oversight over your own staffers who helped the White House draft the executive order imposing it. Now I’ve found out that those staffers may have violated House ethics rules by working for the White House while taking a paycheck from you.
You have been asked whether those staffers signed non-disclosure agreements with the White House. To be honest, it’s not clear to me whether non-disclosures matter in this case, or whether the President can really be considered a “client” beyond the House and so someone House staffers are prohibited from consulting with. That’s why I’m confused by your repeated failure to answer what seems to be a straightforward question. Either your staffers signed such agreements with the White House or they didn’t. If they did, it’s still an open question whether that constitutes a conflict of interest or any other kind of ethics violation. But your avoiding and obscuring the fact doesn’t help. It creates the appearance of a cover-up or, arguably worse, that you don’t know and don’t have sufficient control of your own staffers to find out.
It is of course ironic that ethics complaints are being leveled at you and your staffers given your failed attempt last month to turn the Ethics Office into a Republican-controlled, behind-closed-doors system. You would look much better right now if you had a record of championing open, bipartisan approaches to ethics and governance in general. Instead, these new allegations add to the impression that you and your office required severe ethical supervision. To counter that, you should disclose everything and encourage a broad and thorough investigation. Anything less makes you look worse than you already do.
Why has President Trump excluded the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, the Director of National Intelligence, and the CIA Director from the National Security Council? Why has he also appointed his political advisor Steven Bannon to the NSC? When Bush was President, he didn’t include Karl Rove, nor has any other President included a political advisor. The NSC is supposed to be a non-partisan team dedicated to giving the President the most accurate intelligence information and advice. That still didn’t prevent the kind of cherry-picking that provided the false excuse for the invasion of Iraq. There were no WMDs. Worse, President Trump has already shown a bias against intelligence that he does not personally agree with. Removing the most expert members of the NSC and inserting someone who is not confirmed by the Senate significantly increases the chances of the President making dangerous missteps. You assured your constituents that you would keep the executive branch in check. How then are you responding to this new breakdown in government norms? Our country needs a strong Congress lead by independently minded Republicans, not blind party loyalists willing to rubber stamp anything the President does. The changes in the NSC occurred while national attention is focused on the Muslim ban, a ban that your own staff helped the White House to craft. You claim that you were unaware of their activity. If you can’t monitor and control your own staff, how can you be trusted to monitor and control the entire executive branch?
I just read that top staffers on your House Judiciary Committee drafted the President’s executive order for the Muslim ban. Since your Committee is in charge of immigration policy in the House, such coordination is on principle appropriate. Indeed, it is the President’s lack of consultation with other key government agencies that has added to the unnecessary chaos.
However, I also read that the White House did not coordinate with you personally. Is this true? You are the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Did your own staffers not inform you that they were taking orders from the White House? Did they not consult with their own Chair while drafting the executive order? Is it true that they instead coordinated only with the President’s nominee for Attorney General? Were you not even informed about what was happening? How is this possible? How can you have no authority over your own Committee?
You said “checking executive overreach” was one of your top priorities. And now the executive branch has commandeered your own staff who kept you ignorant of their controversial work. You are an elected member of Congress. Your staffers are not. Their job is to support Congress. At minimum they are supposed to be taking their orders from you and other members of the legislative branch, not from the executive branch. You assured me in a previous letter that there was no danger of President Trump abusing his authority because the Constitution divided power between the three branches of government. This division appears to have already broken down. One of the most influential Congressional committees is working directly for the White House while leaving their supposed boss completely out of the loop.
Even if you agree with the ban itself, the process behind it violates the principles of the Constitution that you have sworn to uphold. It is your duty as an elected Representative to act against this violation. You cannot put your personal policy preferences ahead of the Constitutional process itself.