Justice blocks FBI officials from Senate interviews on Clinton, Comey

Justice blocks FBI officials from Senate interviews on Clinton, Comey
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The Justice Department is blocking Senate investigators from interviewing two top FBI officials who could provide testimony on the firing of former Director James Comey and the handling of the investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Dem pollster: GOP women have a more difficult time winning primary races than Dems Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections MORE’s use of a private email server, according to a letter obtained by The Hill.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate GOP poised to break record on Trump's court picks This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Kavanaugh paper chase heats up MORE (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Dems launch pressure campaign over migrant families California Dems endorse progressive challenger over Feinstein MORE (D-Calif.) have repeatedly requested that the two senior bureau officials, Carl Ghattas and James Rybicki, appear for a transcribed interview.

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The Justice Department in July declined the committee’s request to speak with Rybicki and Ghattas, citing the appointment of Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel in the Russia investigation and “related matters.”

Grassley and Feinstein offered to limit the scope of their questions to events that occurred before Comey’s dismissal, in an effort to avoid a conflict with the pending Mueller investigation, but the Justice Department has stood by its initial refusal.

“As a threshold matter, the scope of the Committee’s inquiry has not been de-conflicted with Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a Monday letter to the committee declining the request.

“Therefore, in order to protect the integrity of the Special Counsel’s investigation, as we have previously indicated, we will not be able to provide Mr. Ghattas or Mr. Rybicki for interviews at this time.”

A committee spokesperson told The Hill in an email that the committee received the letter, dated Monday, on Wednesday morning. 

CNN first reported the Justice Department’s refusal to make the officials available for interview but did not report on the letter. 

A spokesperson for the office of the special counsel declined to comment.

The Judiciary Committee is investigating improper political interference in FBI investigations, including the investigation into the former secretary of State’s email server and the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Rybicki is Comey’s former chief of staff. Ghattas is the head of the FBI’s national security division and is in charge of leading the FBI’s operations and intelligence efforts.

DOJ’s refusal is the latest sign that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the controversial circumstances of Comey’s dismissal.

President Trump initially pinned the firing on Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation, but later allowed that the probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia was on his mind when he made the decision — sparking allegations that he was trying to stifle the investigation.

“Consistent with the Department's long-standing policy regarding the confidentiality and sensitivity of information relating to pending matters, the Department cannot make Mr. Ghattas nor Mr. Rybicki available for transcribed interviews at this time,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Samuel Ramer said in the July letter to the committee.

Rybicki has been hotly sought by committee Republicans, who suggest his testimony may provide support for Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

Grassley and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE (R-S.C.) recently made public portions of a redacted transcript of an interview with two FBI officials done by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency tasked with protecting federal employees from prohibited personnel practices.

Grassley and Graham say one of the officials — who they believe to be Rybicki — told investigators that Comey decided in early May 2016 to draft a statement clearing Clinton of criminal charges but also criticizing her handling of classified material on a private email server.

At that point the FBI had yet to interview Clinton as well as several other key witnesses, including Cheryl Mills, a senior aide to Clinton and Bryan Pagliano, a former tech aide to Clinton.

“Conclusion first, fact-gathering second — that’s no way to run an investigation. The FBI should be held to a higher standard than that, especially in a matter of such great public interest and controversy,” Grassley and Graham wrote in a letter to Christopher Wray, the new FBI director, in late August.

--Updated 2:50 p.m.

 

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