Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff are the public faces of the House Democrats’ battles with Donald Trump, appearing on TV regularly to harangue the president for his resistance to their investigations.
But the job of fighting the president in federal court — and, lately, winning — has been left to a lesser-known figure: House general counsel Douglas Letter.
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Letter, a Justice Department litigator from 1978 until his retirement from the department last year, spent decades defending administrations of both parties in court. But last year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked him to take on a new and unfamiliar role as the guardian of congressional power.
“I’ve got to tell you. If I were running a law firm, I’d hire him in a second,” House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a recent interview. “With lawyers, the key is to be able to argue your side thoroughly, but at the same time take apart the other side. He does both.”
What Letter may not have realized when he took the job was that he’d find himself, seven months later, in the vanguard of an unprecedented constitutional power struggle between House Democrats, who are weighing whether to impeach Trump, and a litigious president blocking congressional oversight in an unprecedented way.
The questions Letter is now litigating — whether Congress can access a president’s private financial records and tax returns, whether Trump can declare his confidants off-limits from congressional investigators, and whether Congress gets access to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s secret grand jury evidence as it considers impeachment — will reorient the boundaries of all three branches of government in unpredictable ways.
That’s because Trump, unlike his predecessors, has battled House leaders on as many fronts as they’re willing to engage.
“Back in the late ’70s and ’80s, in the aftermath of Watergate and regardless of whether the president was a Republican or a Democrat, there were some, but not nearly as many, instances in which executive branch officials and departments were willing to risk the political fallout from refusing to provide information being sought by House committees,” said Steven Ross, who served as House general counsel from 1983 to 1993.
Letter, through a Pelosi spokesman, declined requests for an interview.
Letter’s caseload is massive, and his office is fighting the president in court on several fronts. He has already secured two key victories against the president over Trump’s challenges to subpoenas seeking his financial records; Trump has appealed those decisions and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is expected to issue rulings in the coming months.
“In terms of oversight litigation, this is unprecedented to have as many cases and potential cases all coming up at the same time — which I think is just a feature of the fact that the number of active, aggressive oversight investigations being conducted by the House is itself probably unprecedented,” said Thomas Hungar, Letter’s predecessor who served in the role from 2016 to 2019.
Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, recently suggested that the House general counsel’s office is under so much strain that it is unable to pursue additional litigation, including an expected lawsuit aimed at compelling former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify.
“If the House counsel weren’t so busy enforcing subpoenas — other subpoenas — we would’ve done that before,” Nadler said of the legal effort on “Fox News Sunday.”
“The fact is that we have never seen a situation where the president, the White House, stonewalls Congress on subpoenas,” Nadler added.
The House passed a resolution in June that empowered committee chiefs to go to federal court to enforce their subpoenas; the resolution also gave Letter the ability to hire outside attorneys to handle the caseload.
Pelosi has leaned on Letter to maintain her stance against launching impeachment proceedings against Trump, repeatedly referencing cases against the president that Letter has already won in federal court.
“Whatever decision we made in that regard [impeachment] would have to be done with our strongest possible hand, and we still have some outstanding matters in the courts. It’s about the Congress, the Constitution and the courts, and we are fighting the president in the courts,” Pelosi said last week when asked about opening a formal impeachment inquiry after Mueller testified before two House committees.
Some pro-impeachment forces worry Pelosi’s heavy reliance on the courts is a stall tactic because some of the cases Letter is handling could take months or even years to reach a conclusion. But Pelosi’s posture makes Letter’s role in the oversight battles even more significant.
During various court hearings, Letter has acknowledged the potential for significant delays — but he has pinned the blame on Trump, who Letter said has “a total and basic and fundamental misunderstanding of the system that was set up by the Constitution.” He has also said — in oral arguments and filings — Trump believes Congress is a “nuisance.”
“This Congress is limited in time,” Letter recently told a federal judge who upheld a subpoena for Trump’s financial records, responding to Trump’s efforts to delay the case. “There’s obviously going to be appeals here. We just do not want there to be any lag in time.”
Letter has also overseen a significant shift of power inside the House since Democrats took the majority in January. Under his guidance, Democrats adopted a measure in June to preemptively grant the full authority of the House for any litigation initiated by a congressional committee — an effort meant to help speed court action as Democratic committee leaders run into Trump’s stonewalling efforts.
Then, earlier this month, the House quietly approved a resolution declaring that all Trump-related subpoenas issued by committee chiefs are also presumptively approved to have the support of the full House. The measure empowers lawmakers like Nadler and Schiff — who have unilateral subpoena authority — to compel documents and testimony with the full weight of the House behind them.
When that measure was filed, Letter alerted a federal appeals court of the development, an attempt to mollify a Trump-appointed judge’s concern that investigations of the president didn’t have support of the full House.
From 2012 to 2018, Letter served as the chief appellate lawyer for the Justice Department’s civil division. And throughout his four-decade tenure, he specialized in national security issues and the constitutional separation of powers. It was a role that makes Letter uniquely suited to advance the rights of the legislative branch, those who know him say.
“Over these past 40 plus years since Speaker [Tip] O’Neill picked Stan Brand to be the House’s very first general counsel, the office has developed a wealth of knowledge and experience in cases that are at the forefront of defining the constitutional authorities of the House and appropriate relationships between the branches,” Ross said.