GOP senators hit the gas on Obama-era probes
Senate Republicans are ramping up their investigations into the Obama era as President Trump readies himself for a battle this fall against the former administration’s vice president, Joe Biden.
Fueled by watchdog reports on a shadowy surveillance court and the Justice Department’s decision to drop its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Republicans are targeting Obama officials for further scrutiny and questioning.
Key GOP senators are using their committee gavels to dig into some of the biggest concerns of Trump and his allies, including Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma Holdings, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court and the handling of the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling.
The controversial probes have drawn fierce backlash from Democrats, who believe Republicans are either giving credence to conspiracy theories, unintentionally spreading Russian information or trying to interfere in the 2020 election. But after being thrown into limbo amid a protracted recess sparked by the coronavirus, Republicans say they are ready to hit the gas.
“If we weren’t in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis this would be the worst scandal since Watergate,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Call for investigations escalated on Wednesday after acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell sent Congress a list of dozens of Obama administration officials who they say asked for documents that led to the identity of Flynn being “unmasked” from intelligence reports between the 2016 election and President Trump’s inauguration.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told reporters “we will start requesting interviews with those individuals.”
“I want to find out what you were looking at, why you unmasked an American’s identity and how you use that,” Johnson said.
In addition to Johnson, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement that Congress will conduct oversight of the requests “to ensure the process was used for legitimate national security concerns, not reprisals or political curiosity.”
“I specifically want to know how many unmasking requests were made, if any, beyond General Flynn regarding members of the Trump campaign team, family, or associates,” he said.
Conservatives have argued for months that the case against Flynn was political and that the FBI tried to entrap him. Flynn was ousted from the White House after misleading Vice President Pence and others about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
In the wake of the Justice Department’s decision, Republicans have homed in on a Jan. 5, 2017 White House meeting that included former President Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden and Justice Department and national security officials.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Grenell this week urging them to declassify an email former national security adviser Susan Rice sent to herself about the Jan. 5 meeting, as well as Defense Intelligence Agency records related to Flynn’s case.
“I strongly encourage you to ramp up your efforts to shine a light on political and bureaucratic wrongdoing during the Russia investigation,” Grassley wrote.
Democrats, including former Obama officials and the Biden campaign, blasted the decision by Grenell to declassify the Obama-era intelligence requests and share it with Congress.
The flare up over Flynn is only the latest example of Republicans ramping up their investigations.
The Judiciary Committee, which Cornyn is a member of, will begin holding public hearings as part of its investigation into the FISA court. Graham, who has held closed-door interviews, wants to bring in high-profile Obama administration officials including former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
“We’re going to start sometime in the first of June” with public hearings, Graham told The Hill. “We’re going to try to do a report on what happened by October.”
The timeline would have Graham poised to release a report weeks before the November election.
The focus on the FISA court comes after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found 17 inaccuracies and omissions in the warrant applications tied to former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. In an interim report on a broader FISA review, Horowitz’s team reviewed 29 applications and found errors in all of them.
Johnson, asked what he was “alleging” with his comments on Flynn, pointed to the previous FISA reports.
“I’m not alleging anything, what we already know about is the falsification of the FISA application,” he said.
The findings have fueled calls from lawmakers to reform the court beyond the changes included as part of a reauthorization of three expired USA Freedom Act provisions that is expected to pass the Senate this week.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) added that he thought Graham should speed up the committee investigation with marathon 12-hours sessions.
“Let’s bring ‘em all in,” he said. “The chairman, for whom I have great respect … wants to start with some of the lower ranking people. That’s fine. But let’s don’t spread this out over months, or god forbid years, let’s bring them in, let’s put them under oath.”
“Let’s hear what they have to say and let’s just move up the hierarchy. I think in two or three days, working a full day like most Americans work, we can start at the bottom and go right to the top,” he added.
Graham will likely need a majority of the GOP-controlled committee if he wants to subpoena an official. Under committee rules, subpoenas can be issued either by a vote or with an agreement with the top Democrat. But Democrats have bristled at his plans, arguing that there is other work the Judiciary Committee should be doing.
“Of all the things that we ought to be considering that wouldn’t even be on the list. He has jurisdiction over the Bureau of Prisons where guards and inmates are dying. He has jurisdiction over frauds and scams. …There’s so many things that we could be doing. I think if he wants to wander off into this political wonderland, it’s a waste of our resources at a time of a national emergency,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Meanwhile, Johnson has already scheduled a vote for next week on a subpoena as part of his investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma Holdings.
Johnson has scheduled a vote on a subpoena for Blue Star Strategies, a firm with ties to Ukraine gas company Burisma Holdings. Johnson appeared to acknowledge that the vote will be party line — a break with subpoenas issued by other committees — telling The Hill that he would need every Republican to show up.
The subpoena, according to a draft copy obtained by The Hill, would request records and documents, as well as interview with Blue Star officials. Johnson, in a letter to committee members, said they were looking into “unanswered questions about potential conflicts of interest.”
A spokesman for Johnson noted that the suggestion to subpoena Blue Star came from bipartisan members of the committee. The subpoena, if Johnson is successful, would be the first to come out of the months-long investigation.
Trump and some of his allies have floated a discredited narrative that Joe Biden tried to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to protect his son. No evidence has indicated that either of the Bidens engaged in criminal wrongdoing, and there was widespread concern at the time — both internationally and from a bipartisan coalition in Congress — about corruption within Shokin’s office.
Democrats have also warned for months that they view Johnson’s investigation as political. Frustrations spilled over in March, when Democrats raised it during an unrelated closed-door briefing on election interference. Democrats have requested classified briefings but an aide said those have not yet taken place.
“Since the majority has not fully exhausted their options to get the information they are requesting voluntarily, the Chairman’s decision to schedule this vote appears to be focused on generating headlines and not advancing the committee’s mission of working in a bipartisan manner to protect the health and security of Americans,” a spokesperson for Democrats on the panel told The Hill. “This is not an appropriate use of the committee’s time or resources at any time.”