White House to Bar Fauci, Task Force From Testifying in May
It will remain quiet on Capitol Hill a little longer.
The White House last week blocked Dr. Anthony Fauci from testifying in the House this Wednesday. And now, according to an internal document obtained by RealClearPolitics and three senior administration officials, the administration will bar the coronavirus task force, which includes Fauci, from testifying in Congress for the next month.
“For the month of May, no task force members, or key deputies of task force members, may accept hearing invitations,” reads a White House memo outlining the updated guidance. Exceptions are in order, but only at “the express approval of the chief of staff.”
The updated guidance comes as the Senate returns and the House pursues a “hybrid” return to regular order and the global health pandemic continues to ravage the world. The White House expects that returning lawmakers will have an insatiable appetite for hearings. The administration is also sore after what happened last week.
Fauci was summoned to appear before the House Appropriations Committee for a hearing that ultimately never happened. Administration officials tell RCP they don’t have a problem with task force members testifying (and, on a one-time basis, Fauci has been cleared to testify before a Senate committee later this week). But they bristle at what they characterize as political gamesmanship. Some complain that the hearing was a stunt, and officials fear that partisan bickering distracts from tackling the pandemic.
A White House spokesman explained last week why Fauci would not be making the commute to the House. “While the Trump administration continues its whole-of-government response to COVID-19, including safely opening up America again and expediting vaccine development, it is counterproductive to have the very individuals involved in those efforts appearing at congressional hearings,” said deputy press secretary Judd Deere.
“We are committed to working with Congress to offer testimony at the appropriate time,” he added.
Reasonable accommodation, during normal times, typically means at least a two-weeks’ heads-up. During a pandemic, there is no real precedent. White House officials say they want to avoid overloading the task force like it was during the early days of the crisis. As one senior aide explained, it seemed like task force experts “were on the Hill 24/7.”
“They’ve been working non-stop since the beginning, and the workload has not diminished,” an official said, adding that they would rather have the task force members manning their stations than preparing for congressional cross-examination.
Inside the White House and at the Eisenhower Office Building next door, staffers are in the habit of throwing around the term “radical transparency.” Many are on the phone with the Hill several times, talking to lawmakers, and it isn’t unusual for staff to look up from their desks to see a member of the administration giving an interview on the television. Then, there are the almost daily briefings.
All the activity is considered good, and one official added that he didn’t think “anyone can reasonably say we aren’t being transparent.” But television interviews and press briefings are different than congressional testimony. “We need to make sure the task force members have the time they need to focus on the task at hand,” another official explained, “not on preparing for four-hour hearings several times a week.”
The updated guidance also applies to what the White House calls “primary response departments.” The administration has notified Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and the State Department that “in order to preserve department-wide resources,” they should agree to “no more than one COVID-related hearing” in the House and Senate.
“All other departments, agencies, and witnesses may accept hearing invitations; however, agency resources should still be prioritized toward the COVID-19 response,” according to updated guidance.
Invitations from Congress will go out, and the White House has alerted agencies that it “is reasonable” to decline them because of stresses on resources during the pandemic. According to the memo, the White House and the Office of Management and Budget and the coronavirus task force “will stand behind agencies as they seek to implement these guidelines.”
The guidance doesn’t mean that lawmakers will be out of the loop, administration sources assert. It means that Chief of Staff Mark Meadows will evaluate requests for hearings as Congress makes them.