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Oversight Chairman: White House 'Reversed Course' on Exec Privilege to Keep Rhodes from Testifying

WASHINGTON — House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) slammed the White House for “inconsistent” reasoning behind Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes no-showing a hearing to review the administration’s messaging behind the Iran nuclear deal.

“I think it’s important that we have some clarity. There are some issues that are outstanding,” Chaffetz said at the outset of the hearing. “…We were hoping that the clarity would be provided by Mr. Benjamin Rhodes.”

In a letter today to Chaffetz on Monday, counsel to the president W. Neil Eggleston argued that the administration had already communicated with lawmakers during the deal’s congressional review period.

“While the Administration will continue to consult closely with Congress on this important matter, testimony by one of the most senior advisers to the President raises significant constitutional concerns rooted in the separation of powers,” Eggleston wrote. “Specifically, the appearance of a senior presidential adviser before Congress threatens the independence and autonomy of the President, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel in the discharge of his constitutional duties.”

“For these reasons, administrations of both parties have declined to make the President’s closest advisers available to testify before Congress about their service to the President. Consistent with this practice, we will not make Mr. Rhodes available to testify.”

At Monday’s press briefing, however, press secretary Josh Earnest pointed more to the reasoning that Iran deal opponents had lied, so they shouldn’t get to accuse Rhodes of perpetuating administration lies, calling it not “a fair deal for people who lied about the Iran deal to question the person that told the truth.”

Chaffetz said he “did not doubt” the “talents” or “knowledge” of Rhodes, “but the deal that had been spun up and sold to the American people I’m not sure was as clear as it should have been.”

“And I have serious questions about the transparency, the truthfulness and when it ultimately started,” he added. “And I think those are legitimate questions as we move forward.”

“What is mystifying to me is how readily available [Rhodes] made himself to the media — but only select media, those in his echo chamber. He showed obvious disdain for people with foreign policy credentials, he showed great disdain for the media themselves, he’s entitled to those personal opinions — but he also elected to share those with the New York Times and put them out there.”

Chaffetz noted that Iran deal critic Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) had agreed to be at the House hearing if Rhodes had been there to “ferret out any of these details.”

He also noted that Rhodes is giving a public speech today “but refuses to speak with Congress.”

The chairman said outstanding questions including leading Americans to believe that inspectors would have 24/7 anywhere access to Iran’s nuclear sites, and played clips of Rhodes telling CNN the same as well as Secretary of State John Kerry telling Congress that he “never uttered the words anytime, anywhere access.”

“There’s questions about everything that has actually been agreed to. Not just in writing, but side deals and any other verbal commitments that were also made,” Chaffetz said.

“We wanted to get the person who is right in the thick of things from the White House to come here and testify. The White House on Thursday claimed that this wasn’t about executive privilege, and then less than 24 hours before this hearing, they reversed course and said, ‘oh it is about executive privilege,'” he continued. “Now who’s being inconsistent? Who is being inconsistent?

“You had plenty of time, Mr. Rhodes, to go out and talk to all the media friends and talk to the echo chamber that you brag about in the New York Times, but when it comes time to actually answer hard questions under oath, you decide not to do it.”