Conservatives press for action on FBI bias

Conservatives press for action on FBI bias
© Greg Nash

Some House conservatives have grown frustrated with what they say is the slow pace of a controversial congressional investigation into the FBI’s conduct during the 2016 presidential race.

The probe, derided by Democrats as an effort to discredit special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, has been hotly sought by conservative members, who say there is ample evidence of bias against President TrumpDonald John TrumpLieu: There will be 'widespread civil unrest' if Trump fires Mueller Attorneys for Trump, Mueller hold face-to-face meeting to discuss potential interview topics: report Trump tariffs not helpful for nuclear talks, South Korea says MORE in the Justice Department.

But since the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees announced the probe in late October, investigators have interviewed just two out of around 20 witnesses identified by the panels’ chairmen, Reps. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteGOP chairman threatens subpoena for FBI records on Clinton probe Dem leaders pull back from hard-line immigration demand Goodlatte's immigration reform bill has room for compromise MORE (R-Va.) and Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyGOP chairman threatens subpoena for FBI records on Clinton probe Trump unrestrained in latest attacks of Mueller probe Lawmakers rally to defend Mueller after McCabe exit MORE (R-S.C.), respectively. The most recent of these interviews, with a former chief of staff to former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyAttorneys for Trump, Mueller hold face-to-face meeting to discuss potential interview topics: report Trump adds to legal team after attacks on Mueller Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica attracts scrutiny | House passes cyber response team bill | What to know about Russian cyberattacks on energy grid MORE, took place over a month ago.

“There’s a huge frustration,” one Republican member of the Oversight Committee told The Hill. “We were going to investigate and then, nothing.”

The two committees have continued to receive and review new tranches of documents from the Justice Department, but a handful of lawmakers are pushing for the joint task force to resume interviewing witnesses.

Reps. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHouse GOP frets over Pennsylvania race Conservatives press for action on FBI bias Lawmakers trade barbs, torch Trump at DC soiree MORE (R-Ohio) and Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzSessions fires McCabe from FBI Conservatives press for action on FBI bias Fox Business host claims 'Sessions has fallen ill,' calls for him to resign MORE (R-Fla.), two of the most vocal voices alleging bias at the FBI, have urged Goodlatte to pick up the pace. At the top of their interview list, Gaetz said Thursday, is FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page, whose text messages criticizing Trump and other political figures in both parties have become a flashpoint on the right.

Both officials were previously involved in the Mueller investigation. Strzok was the No. 2 FBI official leading the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump adds to legal team after attacks on Mueller Press: You can’t believe a word he says Feehery: March Madness MORE’s use of a private email server, and he has also drawn Republican interest for his reported role in changing the language in Comey’s statement clearing Clinton of charges. The statement reportedly went from saying Clinton had been “grossly negligent” to saying she had been “extremely careless.”

Jordan also said interviews should be conducted with former FBI general counsel Jim Baker and FBI counterintelligence head Bill Priestap, both of whom have been linked by some Republicans to decisionmaking surrounding a controversial piece of opposition research known as the “Steele dossier.”

Some members are quietly blaming Goodlatte, who is retiring at the end of his term, for letting the probe languish.

“The chairman of the Judiciary Committee has not been zealous in his desire to do real investigations,” the Oversight member said. “And some are questioning whether that is a leadership-driven pushback or something that is more indicative of the chairman’s own personal position.”

The Judiciary Committee has had a full plate this year, working in particular to try and craft the House GOP’s response to the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump rescinded in September.

A House Judiciary Committee aide said the Justice Department investigation remains a priority, pointing to the interviews and documents the committee has already received.

“We have a long list of potential witnesses that we are planning to invite, but we must have the opportunity to receive and review all the relevant documents we have requested before we meet with certain witnesses to ensure that these interviews are in fact fruitful,” the aide said.

Both Gaetz and Jordan say they were encouraged by a Tuesday announcement from Goodlatte and Gowdy, when the chairmen called for a second special counsel to investigate potential surveillance abuse by the Justice Department during the election.

But even if that request is granted, Jordan said Thursday, “we still have to do our work.”

Goodlatte and Gowdy called for a special prosecutor to review any evidence of “bias” by Justice Department or FBI employees, as well as whether there was any “extraneous influence” on the surveillance warrant application for former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

But in an interview with reporters announcing the request, both lawmakers repeatedly emphasized the limits of Congress’s ability to investigate those issues.

“Congress doesn’t have the tools or frankly the public confidence to conduct these investigations,” Gowdy said, when asked if the committee would probe the alleged surveillance abuses if their request for a special counsel were not granted.

“We leak like the gossip girls. We don’t have the ability to empanel a grand jury. We don’t have the ability to grant immunity,” he continued. “Executive branch investigations are more public confidence-inspiring than current congressional investigations.”

The broader investigation into the bureau’s decision-making in 2016 is ongoing, the two lawmakers said.

That review is centered on the bureau’s decisionmaking in both the investigation of Clinton’s private email server and the investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Gowdy on Thursday said the investigation is a serious inquiry into the bureau’s conduct during the Clinton investigation — also under the microscope of Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz — rather than an effort to re-litigate the decision not to bring charges.

The two chairmen say they have questions about why the FBI decided to go public with its investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified information while surreptitiously investigating Trump campaign associates.

They also want to know why the FBI, and not the Justice Department, recommended that Clinton not be charged after the investigation was completed.

So far, the two committees have conducted closed-door interviews with former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeHolder: Sessions needs to 'have the guts' to say no to Trump Trump adds to legal team after attacks on Mueller Booker: 'This is the most important midterm election of our lifetime' MORE and Comey’s former chief of staff, Jim Rybicki.

Democrats from the start have described the inquiry as a waste of time and a bid to distract from the mounting scrutiny surrounding Trump and Russia.

Several Republicans closely involved with the probe say they see indications that it is going to pick up steam again. One potential driving factor: Horowitz has said publicly that he expects to issue his report this spring.

But anticipation of the inspector general’s report has not dimmed conservative appetite for the congressional investigation.

“That probe was launched 2 1/2 months ago. ... I don’t know that we’re breaking any records on pace,” Gaetz said.