GOP stays focused on Justice Department as election looms
WASHINGTON — As House Republicans have struggled in an election year to find resolution on immigration and other policies, a handful of GOP lawmakers have managed to keep much of the chamber’s attention on another topic — what they say is bias at the Department of Justice.
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to spend most of this week asking questions and demanding documents from the department, which is investigating ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. The Republicans have heavily criticized officials for clearing Democrat Hillary Clinton of criminal wrongdoing in 2016 and suggested there may have been a concerted effort to keep Trump from winning the White House.
The barrage of GOP criticism against the Justice Department comes just a few months before the midterm election, and amid intense sparring between the parties over the Russia investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to undermine Mueller’s investigation for political gain.
In a contentious meeting Tuesday, the GOP-led Judiciary panel passed a new resolution demanding that the Justice Department provide more documents, despite an existing agreement to do so that was announced by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office over the weekend. Republican Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, two vocal critics of the Clinton investigation, were behind the resolution.
On Wednesday, the Judiciary panel will privately question Peter Strzok, an FBI agent involved in the Clinton and Russia investigations who sent anti-Trump texts to a colleague. And on Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will appear at an open hearing to testify about both investigations and the documents Republicans are seeking.
Ryan and some other Republican leaders have made pains to disassociate the document requests from campaign politics or Mueller’s probe, saying the House is conducting legitimate oversight.
But Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida put politics front and center at Tuesday’s meeting, ticking off several political polls that have shown decreasing support for Mueller.
“And just as Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost the election, you are losing this argument,” Gaetz told Democrats on the panel who charged that Republicans were trying to interfere in Mueller’s probe. If Republicans were doing so, Gaetz reasoned, “Why is it that my Democratic colleagues can’t convince the American people of that point?”
Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island says Republicans shouldn’t be celebrating the public’s skepticism.
“I do think that excites the base of their party to somehow suggest this is somehow an illegitimate or unfair investigation,” he said.
Democrats angrily fought the resolution passed Tuesday, which is nonbinding but says the documents listed must be provided within two weeks.
“What is really going on here is a bad-faith effort by the majority to interfere in an ongoing investigation,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has asked for many sensitive documents related to the Russia investigation and helped secure classified briefings last month on an FBI informant who questioned Trump officials about their Russia ties during the campaign.
The Republicans’ charges of bias were bolstered earlier this month by a report by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog that faulted top department officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, for their handling of the probe of Clinton’s emails. The report also detailed anti-Trump communications by FBI officials working on the probe, including Strzok, who will talk to the committee behind closed doors Wednesday. In one 2016 text recounted in the report, Strzok said, “we’ll stop it,” in reference to a potential Trump election win.
While strongly criticizing the way the Clinton investigation was handled, the inspector general ultimately found no evidence that bias affected the decision not to bring charges against her.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte said at Tuesday’s meeting that he didn’t believe that the resolution was entirely necessary, since the Justice Department had already promised documents in letters sent to Congress on Friday. Justice and FBI have already turned over more than 800,000 documents to congressional committees, but subpoenas from the Justice and Intelligence panels are demanding additional materials.
But Goodlatte said that he intends to use Thursday’s hearing to question Wray and Rosenstein about complying with the requests and that he encouraged “others to do the same.”
Ryan has consistently backed the document requests and, in a news conference Tuesday, said they have to “to run down every one of these leads.”
Still, he at times seems weary of the topic. After the briefings on the informant last month, Ryan agreed with some other Republicans that the FBI had done its duty in investigating the Trump advisers’ Russia ties.
His spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said Saturday that Justice Department requests for more time seemed “reasonable,” while Nunes, Meadows and Jordan appeared to remain unsatisfied.
As other members of his conference have fixated on Justice’s actions, Ryan has — at times unsuccessfully — tried to direct attention to the upbeat economy.
“As you also know, we just hit the six-month milestone for tax reform. And I’m sure that’s mostly what you’re reporting on these days,” Ryan joked to reporters Tuesday.