HARRISONBURG — U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte and his powerful House Judiciary Committee are under intense inside-the-Beltway scrutiny again, this time over the committee staff’s previously undisclosed work on President Donald Trump’s controversial new immigration policy changes.
Goodlatte denied most of the criticism, saying he knew about the staffers’ work — which he said broke no laws or congressional policies — and took pride in the fact that the Trump team called on his staff to help out.
But he has largely ignored questions about why, if committee staff knew about the coming executive orders, House Republican leaders were not informed of the impending policy shifts, the extent of which took many in the party leadership in Congress by surprise.
It’s the second time in the first month of the 115th Congress that the media and critics pounced on committee Chairman Goodlatte, R-Roanoke. The day before the new session opened on Jan. 3, Goodlatte headed an unsuccessful surprise effort by the Republican caucus to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics of its powers.
Amid cries from both sides of the aisle that the Virginia 6th Congressional District representative was tone-deaf to the message from voters in last fall’s election, then-President-elect Trump, who ran a campaign to “drain the swamp” in Washington, issued two tweets highly critical of the move.
Nineteen hours after its action to gut the OCE, the caucus retreated.
“I think Goodlatte’s performance since Trump’s election has consisted in large part of trying to do and to defend the indefensible,” Lexington-based Gene Zitver said Wednesday via email. Since debuting his website goodlattewatch.com, the former journalist and now avowed partisan Democrat has emerged as one of the Valley’s sharpest critics of the 13-term congressman.
Four weeks to the day after the aborted move against the OCE, Goodlatte came under fire again Monday when Politico.com disclosed what it described as a secret link between Judiciary Committee senior staff and the Trump advisers who wrote the executive order suspending both travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and the U.S. refugee program.
The Politico report and those in the mainstream media that followed focused on whether Goodlatte and other committee members knew of the staff involvement.
Since they were announced Saturday, the immigration policy changes have sparked protests across the country, including a march by hundreds on Harrisonburg’s Court Square on Sunday.
Goodlatte responded Tuesday with a statement denying the assertion that his staff acted without his knowledge, saying he “proudly allowed” his staff to work with the Trump advisers. He also drew a distinction between advice and decision-making.
His staff members, Goodlatte said, “are some of the best on Capitol Hill. I proudly allowed them to provide their expertise to the Trump transition team on immigration law. To be clear, while they gave advice to the new administration, they did not have decision making authority on the policy.”
The statement went on to say his staff “had no control of the language” in the executive order or the timing of its weekend rollout.
Critics kept at it, saying that while the staff had apparently broken no laws or violated any policies, the collaboration with the Trump team was unusual because it was so secret that GOP leadership in the House were apparently left out of the loop on it.
Goodlatte issued another statement on Wednesday saying: “It’s commonplace for both Republican and Democratic staff to lend their expertise to presidential transition teams. In fact, it is so commonplace that the Ethics Committee pro-actively issues guidance every presidential election cycle blessing this activity.”
However, the congressman and his press office continued to ignore questions Wednesday about whether the staff members signed nondisclosure agreements, which became standard practice with those advising the president-elect’s transition team after Trump reportedly grew furious about leaks.
“If members of the Judiciary Committee staff signed non-disclosure agreements with Trump’s staff [which Goodlatte still won’t tell us], it might not break any laws or rules, but it would be highly unusual,” Zitver said
“The salaries of these staffers are paid by us. What business do they have signing agreements to keep their work for Trump secret from the public and possibly from members of Congress?”
Observers say Goodlatte, who has encountered no problem trouncing his opponents at the ballot box, will not find his political future endangered by his or his committee’s recent activity because he is so secure in his seat.
Writing about the early January attempt to take powers away from the Office of Congressional Ethics, Richmond Times-Dispatch political columnist Jeff Schapiro said Goodlatte is “cozy in a deep-red Shenandoah Valley district where he faces little opposition from where it counts most — the far right” or from “outnumbered and outspent Democrats.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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