Senate

GOP shifts focus to investigating Obama officials

Republicans are setting their sights on top Obama-era officials as they plan their own probe into the 2016 election.

Eager to move on from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign, GOP senators are gearing up to investigate the investigators. The idea is gaining traction with the Republican caucus, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Mueller's report hasn't been released yet, but Republicans have seized on a four-page letter from Attorney General William Barr that summarized key conclusions of the two-year probe, including that Mueller "did not establish" that President Trump or members of his campaign coordinated or colluded with Moscow in its election interference.

"Republicans believe that the FBI and [Department of Justice] - the top people - took the law in their own hands because they wanted [Hillary] Clinton to win and Trump to lose," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)  said during an interview with Fox News's Neil Cavuto as part of a media blitz discussing his plans for an investigation.

He said that he will be looking at "abuse" of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant application process and the counterintelligence operation into Trump's campaign, adding that "there will be a lot of inquiry as to how this all happened."

GOP senators are already naming former officials who would be at the top of their lists to question, including former FBI Director James Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

"The Judiciary Committee has primary jurisdiction and doing oversight of the Department of Justice and the FBI, and so that ... is something we need to do. Trying to find out how this thing got off the rails and hopefully prevent it from happening again," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee.  

Cornyn rattled off a list of Obama-era officials he would want to speak with, including Lynch, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, but he homed in on Comey.

"I think Director Comey is probably near the top. He's the one who said that his intention of leaking memos of his conversation was designed to prompt the appointment of a special counsel. It just strikes me as some vindictiveness and animus toward the president motivating a lot of the action," Cornyn said.

Graham, who earlier this month teased that he wants to bring in Comey, added that the former official would be called to publicly testify and "will answer for your time as FBI director."

Comey has been a years-long source of ire for Trump, who fired the FBI director in May 2017. The White House initially cited a Justice Department memo criticizing Comey's handling of the investigation into Clinton's private email server as the reason for his unusual firing, but Trump told NBC News days later that he was thinking about "the Russia thing" when he decided to fire Comey.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an ally of Trump, also wants a laundry list of former Obama officials' communications to be made public, including any communications from former President Obama about an investigation into the Trump campaign. Paul is also calling on Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to testify under oath.

"We need every ounce of information about the people at the very top of our intelligence community that were promoting the inclusion of this fake dossier," Paul said. "We based this investigation on a lie. We should investigate who the liars were."

Trump's allies have claimed that the Russia investigation was started because of information in the controversial opposition research dossier compiled against Trump.

But a 2018 memo from the House Intelligence Committee, which was controlled at the time by Republicans, found that the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump campaign officials had improper contacts with Russia was triggered by information the bureau obtained about George Papadopoulos, a former adviser to the campaign.

With Republicans losing control of the House, the center of gravity for a GOP counter investigation is shifting to the Senate, where Graham, an ally of Trump who is up for reelection in 2020, controls the high-profile Judiciary Committee.

Trump has repeatedly lashed out at Mueller's investigation as a "witch hunt." In the wake of the report being handed over, he has seized on the idea that officials within the Obama Justice Department were using an investigation to try to undercut his campaign.

"How did this start? How did it start? You had dirty cops. You had people that are about FBI folks. I know so many. They are incredible people. But at the top, they were not clean, to put it mildly. And what they did to our country was a terrible, terrible thing," Trump said during an interview with Sean Hannity.

It's not the first time Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have floated trying to dig into the Justice Department's handling of the investigation into Clinton's private email server, the FISA warrant application for Trump campaign aide Carter Page, the controversial opposition research dossier compiled against Trump or the origins of the FBI's investigation into the campaign.

But a probe during the last Congress was derailed amid a disagreement between Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), then the chairman of the committee, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel, about the scope and direction of the panel and concerns that it could bump heads with Mueller's investigation and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But with Mueller's probe wrapped and the Intelligence Committee expected to finish its work in the coming months, senators are digging in for a new chapter that focuses on some of the largest scandals of the 2016 election. The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway was invited by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to a Senate GOP caucus lunch this week, where they discussed the Russia investigation, a spokesman for the GOP senator confirmed.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a member of Graham's committee, is calling for public oversight hearings, including issuing subpoenas to force cooperation if necessary. Under Judiciary Committee rules, Graham would either need a deal with Feinstein to issue a subpoena or would need a majority of the GOP-controlled panel.

McConnell, asked about Graham's plans, said the South Carolina Republican had "raised a legitimate question" about potential misbehavior within the Obama administration during the 2016 campaign.

"I think it's not inappropriate for the chairman of the Judiciary Committee with jurisdiction over the Justice Department to investigate possible misbehavior," McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference. "The House is not going to miss an opportunity in ... the coming months to look at what they perceive to be things that require oversight. The Senate is involved in the oversight business just like the House is."

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has stuck by Trump, told radio host Hugh Hewitt that there needs to be more scrutiny of how "so many Obama officials and senior officials in the FBI came to believe that an American presidential campaign was colluding with a foreign intelligence service."

Cotton was asked if his "premise" was that Obama administration officials tried to "sabotage" the transition.

"I don't think based on what we've seen over the last three years you can have any other working premise," Cotton said.

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