OPINION | On Trump-Russia probe, don’t underestimate Sen. Chuck Grassley
© Getty

Amid a handful of congressional probes, one that may be getting the least attention has the potential for the biggest bang.

My former boss, Republican Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyRepublicans jockey for position on immigration House clears bill to combat crimes against elderly Grassley: DACA deal wouldn't need border wall funding MORE of Iowa, just called Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE Jr. and Paul Manafort to testify before his powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, after this week’s revelations that the two sat down with a Russian lawyer who dangled political dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT
No surprise. This is the Grassley I have known for over 30 years — fearless, nonpartisan, stubborn, dogged when it comes to oversight — regardless of who is in the White House. In a Congress of foxes who know many things and hedgehogs who know one thing, when it comes to oversight, Grassley is king of the hedgehogs — with a singular focus on openness, transparency and accountability that serves him well.

 

What is surprising is that the senator from Iowa is still underestimated. The simple reality is that Grassley’s track record of successful oversight is unmatched by any of his colleagues in the current Congress. He has turned a myriad of government agencies, corporations and public entities upside down (or perhaps right side up) — going back to the Department of Defense in the 1980s to most recently the disasters at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In addition, Grassley’s oversight has brought sunshine and disinfectant to the Red Cross, defense industry, charities, universities, hospitals, churches, tax shelters, nursing homes, corporations, the IRS, AmeriCorps, the healthcare industry, the FBI — on and on and on.

Inevitably, whoever is the subject of Grassley’s oversight whines into the dark — “why is he picking on me?”

The answer is, Grassley isn’t picking on you — Grassley does oversight on everyone. He is not motivated by animus or politics. He is motivated to find the truth and to protect the taxpayer — and the whistleblower.

I recognize that in our cynical and divisive days these words sound like a Frank Capra movie, but I would tell you having been at the right hand of Sen. Grassley’s oversight for many years and that is the simple reality.

Of particular relevance to today’s news is Grassley’s oversight of law enforcement and especially the FBI, something that Grassley has been doing since the earth cooled. His reputation for fearless tough questioning and oversight of the FBI and law enforcement is well known — just look at the root canal without anesthesia he performed on the FBI labs starting in the late 1990s.

It’s why I suspect the FBI and former FBI officials can’t run fast enough to stay away from hearings in front the Senate Judiciary Committee and seek to find friendlier forums.

Grassley is the one to watch because there is simply no moving him. The FBI tried to intimidate him years ago and got nowhere.

The Defense Department whispered about his patriotism — to no avail.

Senate leadership learned long ago that he cannot be dissuaded. Invariably it turns out that everyone Grassley investigates has a cousin from Iowa, went to school in Iowa or bought gas in Iowa — that gets you nowhere (although Grassley would invariably know your cousin).

Also frustrating to his opponents, his oversight can’t be attacked as partisan — he is happy to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both houses. His oversight labors on regardless of who is in the White House. There is hardly an investigation I can think of when Grassley was chairman/ranking member of the Finance Committee from 2001-2008, when we didn’t work closely with the ranking member, Sen. Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBernie Sanders flexes power on single-payer ObamaCare architect supports single-payer system Trump has yet to travel west as president MORE (D-Mont.).

In addition, it matters in oversight that it isn’t your first time to the state fair (although do try anything deep-fried). Grassley and his staff have a wealth of experience and knowledge in oversight — and aren’t caught up with just the circus of hearings — but instead do the less glamorous but hard work of letters, interviews and follow-up that is invariably far more productive and effective than trying to pin down a witness in a five minute exchange.

Elected officials that think they are doing oversight by doing a drive-by shooting of coming to a hearing and asking what they view as a tough question and getting a vague non-answer are kidding themselves.

Finally, Grassley is the patron saint for whistleblowers — and whistleblowers trust him and come to him and provide him the story behind the story. He’s not shy about seeking their input, soliciting it on his website.

Time and time again it is the whistleblower — whether Fred Whitehurst on the FBI labs or Ernie Fitzgerald’s calling out Defense Department waste that have made much of Grassley’s oversight possible and successful.

There is a reason why when you Google “Grassley” and “whistleblower” you get over 200,000 hits. He recognizes the importance of whistleblowers, he listens to them and he protects them. It is no wonder that he and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Senate confirms No. 2 spot at HHS, days after Price resigns Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax CEO faces outraged lawmakers | Dem presses voting machine makers on cyber defense | Yahoo says 3 billion accounts affected by 2013 breach MORE (D-Ore.) started the Whistleblower Caucus — recognizing the importance of supporting whistleblowers.

Perhaps Grassley’s attitude to oversight is best encapsulated by a phone call I took from the grand man of whistleblowers — Ernie Fitzgerald, who was illegally fired by Richard Nixon and then reinstated — while standing outside Grassley’s office.

Ernie didn’t want to take the senator’s time but wanted to buck him up during a tough time and just said in his strong Alabama drawl, “Tell Chuck one thing: John 8:32.”

Without missing a beat, Grassley said “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Don’t be distracted by the foxes, focus on the hedgehog.

Dean Zerbe was active in congressional investigations of government waste, fraud, and abuse for 25 years. Dean left Congress in 2008 where his last position was as Senior Counsel and Tax Counsel on the Senate Finance Committee for Sen. Charles E. Grassley. Dean also served as Sen. Grassley's Chief Investigative Counsel on the Finance Committee for a number of years prior to being appointed senior counsel.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.