House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings on Thursday accused the Trump administration of blocking a congressional investigation into the attempted removal of the Education Department’s acting independent watchdog.
Cummings (D-Md.) said that Education Department officials refused to turn over documents related to the Trump administration’s efforts earlier this year to replace the agency’s acting inspector general. The move by the administration came after the acting IG opened an investigation into Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ decision to reinstate the federal powers of an accreditor of for-profit colleges.
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In response to the House Oversight Committee’s investigation, department officials have so far turned over seven pages of documents, most of which were “heavily redacted,” according to Cummings.
The department “is obstructing our investigation and appears to be part of an unprecedented cover-up by the Trump administration across multiple Executive Branch agencies and departments,” Cummings wrote in a letter on Thursday along with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.).
Reed D. Rubinstein, the Education Department’s acting general counsel, said in a letter to the committee earlier this month that “Congress’ oversight requests here implicate core Executive Branch interests and raise serious separation of powers concerns.”
The requests for documents involve “deliberations regarding a presidential appointment, a core Presidential function,” he wrote, adding that the Education Department was “unclear about Congress’ legislative need and authority over such deliberations.”
The congressional inquiry began after President Donald Trump in January appointed Phil Rosenfelt, the Education Department’s deputy general counsel, to replace Sandra Bruce as acting inspector general. The White House backtracked on the appointment several days later after a swift backlash from Democrats, who said it was an attack on the independence of the inspector general.
Democrats have also cried foul over the attempt to remove Bruce as acting inspector general because it came after she resisted a request by Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais to “reconsider” an investigation into DeVos’ decision to reinstate a controversial accreditor of for-profit colleges.
The Education Department has previously said that the decision to replace Bruce with Rosenfelt, a longtime career official, was made internally before Bruce opened that investigation into DeVos’ actions.
DeVos has also publicly defended the Trump administration’s handling of her agency’s inspector general. “To suggest that anything nefarious was unfolding there is absolutely wrong,” she said during a Senate hearing in March.
Cummings and DeSaulnier in their letter set a new June 10 deadline for the Education Department to produce all of the documents requested by the committee. They also requested that Zais sit for a transcribed interview on June 13.
Education Department spokesperson Liz Hill declined to say whether Zais would agree to a transcribed interview. “We have answered the Chairman’s questions and are willing to work with the Committee on all lawful oversight requests on this or any other matter,” she said.