House Republicans defend interview with FBI deputy

House Republicans defend interview with FBI deputy
© Greg Nash

House Republicans on Thursday defended a hastily scheduled interview of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe this week as a natural step in their probe of the Justice Department’s actions during the 2016 presidential campaign.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdySunday Shows preview: Lawmakers, Trump allies discuss Russia probe, migrant family separation Five takeaways on the IG’s scathing report on the FBI House conservatives introduce resolution calling on DOJ to provide key documents on 2016 MORE (R-S.C.) said the interview was part of a probe with the Judiciary Committee announced in late October and centered around decisions the FBI and DOJ made during the White House race.

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“[Judiciary Chairman Bob] Goodlatte [R-Va.] and I want to look into decisions in 2016. There was a time when Democrats were also interested in looking at some of those issues, like why did you make Secretary [Hillary] Clinton’s investigation public but not the Trump campaign investigation,” Gowdy told reporters Wednesday night.

Goodlatte told CNN on Thursday that the McCabe interview — which Republicans requested Tuesday after the FBI official appeared for eight hours before the Intelligence Committee — was merely the first interview in its own investigation.

"This investigation was announced two months ago, and this is the first interview, and we are gathering documents,” Goodlatte said.

The Intelligence panel is conducting a sprawling investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election that has spawned numerous offshoots. Tuesday's interview with the No. 2 FBI official, according to Gowdy, was a completely separate tract that focused on the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle.

But Democrats in the room on Thursday fiercely disputed those characterizations, accusing GOP members of leading a baseless investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Clinton’s email server as part of an effort to distract from special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing Russia probe.

“This hearing is part of an ongoing Republican [effort] to divert attention,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “This hearing was planned with very little planned notice.”

Gowdy and Goodlatte on Tuesday sent a letter to the Justice Department asking that it make McCabe and two other agents available to testify. The interview, though kept confidential, was moved from a classified to a nonclassified setting at the last minute, according to a Democratic aide. 

Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsConsultant with energy clients helped Pruitt get Rose Bowl tickets Five takeaways on the IG’s scathing report on the FBI Top Dems: IG report shows Comey's actions helped Trump win election MORE (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the meeting a “distraction and disruption,” while claiming that the “urgency” of this meeting is only because Mueller is closing in on the president’s inner circle.

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“The emergency, urgency I think is the fact that Mr. Mueller is moving closer and closer. He's gotten some indictments,” he said. “I call it distraction and disruption.”

The meeting was “tense” and “wasting our time,” said Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiDem lawmakers demand review of Education Department ethics program over official tied to for-profit colleges Ivanka Trump to press Senate on vocational training bill Republicans press top FBI official on Strzok's role in federal probes MORE (D-Ill.).

Republicans, who remained relatively mum on the details of the meeting, insisted the investigation has nothing to do with Mueller or his probe.

“I can say that special prosecutor Mueller is not part of any focus of any investigation, and so I tell you it has nothing to do with him,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsKey conservative presses for shield law after seizure of NYT reporter’s records The Memo: Trump's legal troubles pile up despite release of IG report Wray defends FBI after 'sobering' watchdog report MORE (R-N.C.), a member of the Oversight committee.

McCabe interviewed with the intel panel on Tuesday amid swirling concerns among some Republicans who believe the bureau is hopelessly biased against President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday Shows preview: Lawmakers, Trump allies discuss Russia probe, migrant family separation Seth McFarlane: Fox News makes me 'embarrassed' to work for this company  'Art of the Deal' co-author: Trump would act like Kim Jong Un if he had the same powers MORE.

McCabe, who was appointed by former FBI Director James Comey in early 2016, has long been a Republican target, thanks in part to political donations his wife received from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a Clinton ally.

But McCabe skyrocketed back into the public view after a series of texts from a former member of Mueller’s team became public. The agent, Peter Strzok, disparaged political figures of both parties in the texts, including Trump, whom he called an “idiot.” The agent was removed from Mueller's team earlier this year.

Republicans went into the interview Tuesday planning to press McCabe on a host of issues, from the Strzok texts to how the FBI used a controversial, unconfirmed dossier of opposition research into then-candidate Trump.

Some Republicans have speculated that the bureau may have used the so-called Steele Dossier — some of which has been shown to be false — as the basis for a surveillance warrant on members of Trump’s campaign.

“Andrew McCabe cuts across every facet of every investigation in 2016 that your viewers are interested in from Secretary Clinton’s emails to the investigation into the Trump campaign,” Gowdy told Fox News on Tuesday.

Republicans have long argued that Clinton received kid-glove treatment from the Obama Justice Department and now are using reports of Strzok’s reassignment from Mueller’s team to argue that the investigation into Russia’s election meddling is a politically motivated “witch hunt” against Trump.

Goodlatte and other Republicans are calling for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate the handling of the FBI’s decisionmaking in the Clinton probe.

"The scope of this interview has nothing to do with the Mueller probe. It has everything to do with the handling of the Clinton investigation," said Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzGOP lawmakers demand drafts of DOJ report on Clinton email investigation Live coverage: IG releases watchdog report on FBI, Clinton probe Ryan remarks on Trump ‘spygate’ leave conservatives fuming MORE (R-Fla.), a fierce critic of Mueller. 

"Whenever anyone, Republican or Democrat, has ventured into subjects that append to the Mueller investigation, it's been immediately shut down by Chairman Gowdy or Chairman Goodlatte," he said.

Gaetz disputed the characterization of the meeting as "tense," but said McCabe's testimony was "substantive."

Both Gaetz and Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaThe Hill's 12:30 Report On The Money: New York AG sues to dissolve Trump Foundation | Issa tamps down rumors of consumer agency nomination | Bank regulator faces backlash over comments on racism | Cohn contradicts Trump on trade Issa tamps down rumors of consumer bureau nomination MORE (R-Calif.) said the interview raised questions of some "inconsistencies."