White House on Hurricane Response Efforts

Reveals That Agency Briefings To Date “Raise Serious Questions About the Role of the President and White House Officials”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter requesting that Chairman Trey Gowdy reconsider his decision to reject Cummings’ request to send a document request to the White House as part of the Committee’s bipartisan investigation into the Trump Administration’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The Oversight Committee cannot conduct a credible investigation into the federal government’s response to these hurricanes without obtaining documents and information directly from the White House,” Cummings wrote. “As former Chairman Tom Davis demonstrated, a Republican Chairman can obtain documents from a Republican White House — if he asks. If our Committee obtains no documents at all from the White House, our investigation will be incomplete, inadequate, and marred by claims of partisan protectionism.”

On September 29, 2017, Cummings and Rep. Stacey Plaskett asked Gowdy to investigate the Trump Administration’s response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria. They urged him to follow the model of the Committee’s former Chairman, Republican Tom Davis, who led the congressional investigation after Hurricane Katrina, by sending document requests to the White House, the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Governor of Puerto Rico.

Cummings provided Gowdy with drafts of five letters that directly tracked those sent by Davis during the Bush Administration — including his letter to the White House at the time. However, Gowdy agreed only to send letters to the three federal agencies, refusing to send one to the White House or the Governor of Puerto Rico.

“We were not given a satisfactory explanation for your decision to wall off the White House from congressional scrutiny in this way,” wrote Cummings. “You stated publicly that you prefer to hold briefings out of the public eye, but you declined to request any documents — or briefings — from the White House or the Governor.”

On October 11, 2017, Cummings sent his own letter requesting White House documents, but despite multiple efforts to follow-up, White House officials have shown no indication that they plan to cooperate voluntarily with this request.

In his letter today, Cummings revealed that the Committee has now received briefings from FEMA, DOD, and HHS, warning that “the briefings our Committee has received to date raise serious questions about the role of the President and other White House officials in responding to this disaster.”

· On October 3, 2017, Damon Penn, FEMA’s Assistant Administrator of the Response Directorate, briefed Oversight Committee Members, explaining that FEMA did not make preparations to shelter more than 35 people in the Caribbean office at the time of the hurricanes. In response to my question about whether President Trump immediately issued any orders for an emergency response, as President Obama did for Haiti, Mr. Penn said he did not know and that we should ask the military.

· On October 11, 2017, Robert Salesses, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, was asked why there was such a small response compared to Superstorm Sandy in 2012. He explained that Superstorm Sandy affected “Wall Street” and that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands received the level of effort that was needed.

· Earlier today, Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS, informed Committee Members that HHS asked DOD 96 hours prior to Hurricane Maria for assistance moving medical supplies and mobile hospitals to Puerto Rico, but they did not arrive until more than three weeks later. When asked why the President did not immediately send DOD and the Army Corps to respond, he stated, “I can’t give a good answer on that.” He confirmed that there were meetings at the White House of the Principals and Deputies Committees, but he did not provide details about the dates of those meetings or what was discussed.

“President Trump awarded himself a grade of ‘10’ for his Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria.” Cummings concluded. “There may be reasonable disagreements about whether President Trump’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was effective, but the Oversight Committee will not be able to answer this question until we obtain the documents and information the White House is withholding. If the Committee continues to wall off the White House from congressional scrutiny, we will be doing a disservice not only to history, but to the American families who are being devastated by these disasters.”
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