The White House and House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa are perennially at war. But this time it has gotten strange and personal, and the California Republican isn’t backing down.
Issa has been on what Democrats call a “subpoena binge” against Obama administration officials in pursuit of scandals involving Benghazi, the IRS and other issues that animate conservatives.
On Friday, his strategy took a turn when he subpoenaed David Simas, an Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Political Strategy & Outreach, or OPSO. It was an unusual move: White House aides are traditionally off limits in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. Simas was told to appear before the House in days, on Wednesday, July 16.
Issa’s concern? OPSO may involve duties that run afoul of the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits most executive branch employees from engaging in partisan political activity. Suspicions aside, Issa didn’t point to evidence that Simas broke the law.
Issa’s move rankled the White House. On Monday, White House counsel Neil Eggleston responded with a letter asking the GOP’s oversight chief to withdraw his subpoena and offering him a briefing on Tuesday to explain how OPSO complies with the Hatch Act.
“The Committee’s effort to compel Mr. Simas’s testimony threatens longstanding interests of the Executive Branch in preserving the President’s independence and autonomy and his ability to obtain candid advice and counsel to aid him in the discharge of his constitutional duties,” Eggleston wrote. “Your decision to pursue this course of action is precipitate and surprising in light of our clear willingness to work with you to meet your informational needs and the fact that you have not pointed to any evidence that OPSO has violated the Hatch Act.”
Issa agreed to the briefing Tuesday with White House lawyers but he didn’t flinch on the subpoena.
“The subpoena remains in effect,” Issa aide Frederick Hill told TPM on Tuesday.
The Office of Political Strategy & Outreach was created in January 2014 as a liaison of sorts for the midterm elections. Its job is to perform logistical tasks such as coordinating Obama’s trips for fundraisers and, internally, guiding administration officials on what the law does and does not permit them to do on the campaign trail. The Obama White House shut its Office of Political Affairs in 2011 and reopened it in 2014 under a new name, OPSO.
It’s not the first time a White House aide has been compelled to testify, although it has happened before under very different circumstances. In President George W. Bush’s second term, his aide Karl Rove was brought before a grand jury after the Washington Post reported that he played a role in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.