Senators locked in turf battle over Russia probes

Senators locked in turf battle over Russia probes
© Greg Nash

Senators are locked in a turf battle as they plot their way forward in dueling investigations on Russian election interference. 

Two Senate panels — the Judiciary and Intelligence committees — are conducting separate probes into the 2016 White House race, ties between President Trump’s team and Moscow, and former FBI Director James Comey’s firing. 

But with new allegations against the administration leaking almost daily, the two committees are increasingly bumping elbows as they fight for the same information.

Leaders on the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the FBI, say their requests for information are being stonewalled. Comey declined to testify publicly before their panel. 

“We’re trying to get [Comey] before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but we haven’t had any luck,” committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGraham vows Biden, Ukraine probe after impeachment trial Social security emerges as latest flash point in Biden-Sanders tussle Trump to sign USMCA next Wednesday MORE (R-Iowa) told reporters during a conference call. “Of course we could subpoena him, but we don't want to make that move until we have to.” 

Grassley and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight MORE (D-Calif.) also want the FBI to hand over any of Comey’s memos and have requested either Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe brief their committee. 

A spokesman for Grassley said the FBI hasn't handed over the Comey memos but sent Grassley and Feinstein a letter saying they were doing "appropriate consultation" on the request in the wake of Robert Mueller being named as special counsel. 

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The Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe hasn’t had such setbacks. Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrMarsha Blackburn shares what book she's reading during Trump Senate trial GOP senator provides fidget spinners to Senate colleagues at lunch Juan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump MORE (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDemocrats worry Trump team will cherry-pick withheld documents during defense Commerce Department withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon pushback: reports  Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill MORE (D-Va.) were given broad subpoena authority and issued the latest round against Michael Flynn, Trump’s ousted national security adviser. 

They’ve scored major victories in getting Comey to agree to testify, having McCabe speak before their committee and meeting privately with Rosenstein. 

Burr and Warner, who have the public backing of Senate leadership, remain tight-lipped about closed-door deliberations but have started giving impromptu press conferences after Intelligence Committee meetings and are frequently mobbed by reporters in the Capitol. 

But Grassley and Feinstein warn their committee won’t be sidelined. The two have sent out a flurry of statements noting their committee has jurisdiction over the FBI. 

“I think we perhaps need to do more than just invite [Comey]. I think it’s important that he come before the Oversight Committee ... and at least do us the courtesy of appearing and that we should be able to look at his material and ask questions about them,” Feinstein told PBS. 

Grassley echoed that in a recent series of tweets, saying the “Judiciary Com must continue FBI oversight even w [Special] Counsel Can't wait months for Mueller report Judiciary needs to know [sic].” 

The Senate Judiciary Committee isn’t the only panel having trouble getting information. 

Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, also requested Comey’s memos but said in a letter to McCabe that “the FBI is withholding those documents, citing to the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special prosecutor.”

Grassley has a penchant for using the Senate’s rulebook to pressure officials into handing over information. He warned he would hold up Rosenstein’s nomination until Comey briefed him. The gamble paid off when the former director met with him and Feinstein a day later. 

It’s unclear if other members of the Judiciary Committee will play hardball. 

Asked whether Comey should have to appear before both committees, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Nadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, noted that Comey is now a private citizen. 

“It’s not a given that he has to appear at all so I think we’ve got to be careful about demands, competing demands, and getting in the position basically of creating a situation where he won’t come up here and testify,” he said. 

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats see Mulvaney as smoking gun witness at Trump trial Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE (D-Ill.) spoke about the importance of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation and backed an independent commission on the Senate floor this week but didn’t mention the Judiciary Committee — of which he is a member.

Questioned about the omission, the No. 2 Senate Democrat said he supports Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president MORE’s (R-S.C.) subcommittee probe and oversight of the FBI, including Comey’s firing and the future of the bureau.

“This Russian investigation also involves the fate and future of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That’s a Judiciary Committee issue,” he said. 

Asked if the committee would stick with a “more traditional oversight role” moving forward, Durbin added, “I hope so. I’ve asked Senator Feinstein and she’s appealed to Senator Grassley that we call in the attorney general [Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent Trump-aligned group launches ad campaign hitting Doug Jones on impeachment ICE subpoenas Denver law enforcement: report MORE] and reassert our oversight function.”

Graham has been skeptical about the future of the Judiciary Committee’s broader Russia probe, even as his subcommittee previously took the lead, including a closely watched hearing with former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. 

“When we plan to do something we need to make sure we don’t step in to [special counsel Robert Mueller’s] lane,” he said. "We’ve got to be very mindful of what our role is and I think it severely limits it. ... So let’s have a hearing about that issue.” 

Graham added that he, Grassley, Feinstein and Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats urge Supreme Court to save consumer agency from chopping block Citizens United decision weathers 10 years of controversy Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change MORE (D-R.I.) want a meeting with Mueller. The Senate Intelligence Committee is requesting a similar meeting — marking another example of overlap.  

Cornyn floated that it might be time for leadership to sit down and try to map out jurisdictions, particularly after Rosenstein’s decision to bring in Mueller to lead the Justice Department’s probe.

“I do think it would be useful to have some sort of discussion among the leadership about the role of the different committees, because we’re not all the FBI and we’re not all the Department of Justice and so we don’t have unnecessary conflict,” he said. 

But Cornyn, echoing Durbin, also defended the Judiciary Committee, saying it was "entirely appropriate" to do "vigorous oversight and that “knowing Sen. Grassley the way I do, I know he feels very strongly about the Judiciary Committee’s role.”

The tug of war between the two committees isn’t the first time Russia’s election meddling has blurred committee lines. 

GOP senators mulled widening what committees were involved earlier this year, before dropping the idea. Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGraham vows Biden, Ukraine probe after impeachment trial GOP warns of 'drawn out' executive privilege battle over Bolton testimony  Senate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses MORE (R-Wis.), who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also opened the door to using his panel to “go beyond” the Intelligence Committee’s probe. 

But the current overlap between the Judiciary and Intelligence committees appears to stump some senators. Graham stressed recently that he didn’t care if Comey met with the Intelligence Committee, but it was “imperative” he also meet with Judiciary.  

“This is probably why you need a joint select committee so you don’t run into these problems,” he added. 

Asked if he understood where the boundary lines between the two Senate investigations stood, Cornyn said, “You know, I’ve been asking some questions about that.” 

—Updated at 1:38 p.m.