House Judiciary ramps up oversight of Trump administration with two new hires

By Rebecca Kaplan

/ CBS News

Matt Whitaker tells Democrat his time is up

The House Judiciary Committee announced Tuesday it has retained two high-powered lawyers to help plan and conduct oversight of the Trump administration on issues ranging from ethics to obstruction of justice.

The two attorneys – ethics expert Norm Eisen and trial attorney Barry Berke of Kramer Levin – will work part-time for the committee as consultants. They'll help develop an oversight agenda — filled with document requests and hearings — to provide oversight that Democrats say was sorely lacking during the first two years of the Trump administration, when Republicans controlled the House.

"This is a critical time in our Nation's history. The President of the United States faces numerous allegations of corruption and obstruction," said Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Democrat of New York. "His conduct and crude statements threaten the basic legal, ethical, and constitutional norms that maintain our democratic institutions. Congress has a constitutional duty to be a check and balance against abuses of power when necessary. Before anything else, however, we have to follow the facts and conduct the sort of oversight that has been completely absent over the last two years. "

A committee aide told CBS News that Eisen and Berke are not being brought in to help launch impeachment proceedings against the president. But the aide did not dispute that whatever their work uncovers could eventually be used as evidence against the president if Congress does move to impeach him. Among the issues the two attorneys will study are broader questions of obstruction by the administration, ranging from specific instances like President Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation, to broader attacks on the Justice Department and FBI.

Eisen founded and currently serves as the chairman of the board of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a position he will resign as he begins consulting for the committee. He will continue part-time work as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Eisen also previously served as White House Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform under President Obama, and he was later named ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Berke, a partner at Kramer Levin law firm in New York, is one of the leading trial attorneys and white collar criminal defense lawyers in the country with an expertise in public corruption. He has deep connections within the New York legal world. He will commute to D.C. four days a week to work for the committee.

Eisen and Berke have previously teamed up for write op-eds on the legal problems that have embroiled the president's aides since the start of the Mueller investigation. After a December sentencing memo by the special counsel revealed that Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump's former personal attorney, had conversations with a Russian national to advance then-candidate Trump's political and business affairs in Moscow, the pair analyzed the decision in a New York Times op-ed.

"This newly disclosed conversation directly speaks to the question of collusion — the outreach was explicitly political and was focused on how each side would gain from a potential partnership," the pair wrote.

They added that Mr. Trump and his company "could face substantial legal jeopardy," if reports that Cohen suggested giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a $50 million luxury apartment in a future Trump Tower Moscow project prove to be true.

"We don't know the content of those contacts, but considering public statements about potential pardons, it is not hard to imagine they could implicate the president and others in a conspiracy to obstruct justice or witness tampering if, for example, they suggested a potential pardon if Mr. Manafort protected the president," Eisen and Berke conclude.

Despite a push from the Democratic base and outside activists such as billionaire Tom Steyer to impeach the president, Democratic leaders in the House have moved cautiously since they won control of the House in the midterm elections. Most have said they'll wait to see what the investigation by Special Counsel Mueller reveals before moving ahead.

"Impeachment is designed as a defense of the republic against a president who would aggrandize power, destroy liberty, destroy Democratic institutions, destroy the separations of powers. If that happens, if you get real evidence of that, then you have to consider impeachment hearings," Nadler said on "CBS This Morning" in January. "There are certainly a lot of allegations but we'll have to wait and see what the Mueller investigation comes up with and other investigations looking into it."

But Nadler added that there is still work to do, apart from the special counsel investigation.

"For the last two years, the president has had no oversight, no accountability from Congress. The Republican Congress was completely derelict in its responsibility to provide oversight. We're going to provide that oversight. We're going to use the subpoena power if we have to," he said.

First published on February 12, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Rebecca Kaplan

Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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