GOP chairmen stake out turf in Obama-era probes

GOP chairmen stake out turf in Obama-era probes
© Greg Nash

GOP chairmen are carving out their turf in controversial probes stemming from the Obama administration. 

Senate Republicans are set to escalate their investigations on Thursday, when two panels will vote on dueling subpoenas that have significant areas of overlap. 

But Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE (R-S.C.) and Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonRomney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Grassley won't attend GOP convention amid coronavirus uptick Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP MORE (R-Wis.)—who chair the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, respectively — say they are trying to avoid a jurisdictional fight as they prepare to do a deep dive into decisions stemming from the Obama era. 

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“It’s a big area to cover. There’s some overlap no doubt in terms of what Lindsey is looking at, but we’re going to try to be as non-duplicative as possible and as cooperative as possible,” Johnson told The Hill. 

The two appeared to be on different tracks earlier this year, with Graham focused on the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the warrant applications against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Johnson, frequently in coordination with Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Clash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Trump says GOP 'flexible' on convention plans MORE (R-Iowa), had sent multiple oversight letters linked to Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president and current presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Tammy Duckworth is the epitome of the American Dream Mexico's president uses US visit to tout ties with Trump MORE

But duplications began to emerge as both men pledged to investigate the handling of the investigation into former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, after the Justice Department announced it was dropping its case. Flynn was fired in 2017 for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.

Republicans, aligning themselves with Trump, are also increasingly skeptical of the Russia probe, which the president has claimed was a “witch hunt.” 

Graham says he will focus on the FBI angle, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first public hearing stemming from the investigation on Wednesday. Former Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinSupreme Court to hear dispute over Democrats' access to Mueller materials Republicans release newly declassified intelligence document on FBI source Steele GOP's Obama-era probes fuel Senate angst MORE testified in what were at times testy exchanges with Republicans on the panel. 

“I want to focus on the FBI, DOJ role. He’s more focused on what happened in transition,” Graham said of he and Johnson. 

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“What I’m looking at is how did we, what happened in the Carter Page case? Why did it take two years for the Mueller investigation? ... What Sen. Johnson is going to look at is activity from the election through the transition,” he said. 

Johnson says he will focus on the theme of “corruption,” which he said would make his investigation broader than the Judiciary probe. 

“The blanket thing we’re looking at is the corruption of the transition process, and that really starts with what happened before the election, during the transition and events that unfolded even after this administration,” he said. 

Johnson added that his investigation would also look at the issue of “unmasking” and “leaks.” He specifically pointed to media reports on Trump's calls with world leaders that were leaked in the early days of the administration. 

The subpoena authorizations that Graham and Johnson will force votes on Thursday include dozens of officials. 

The two chairmen want to talk to many of the same people. About half the people on Graham’s 50-person subpoena list are on Johnson’s. 

Johnson is specifically requesting a subpoena on roughly 35 individuals, approximately 25 of whom are on Graham’s list. Asked how they would handle interviews with individuals who had been subpoenaed by both committees, Johnson added that he would “work carefully” with Graham. 

“I cooperate pretty easily with people,” he added. 

It wouldn’t be the first time the two chairmen have faced overlap. They both appeared interested late last year in investigating the Bidens. Graham and Johnson told The Hill at the time that they weren’t coordinating. 

“They’ve got a lot of free agents, and they’re entitled in their own right as a senator to ask for information, but it would be nice to have a little more organized, but so be it,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad Chamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection George Floyd and the upcoming Texas Democratic Senate runoff MORE (R-Texas), a member of Graham’s committee, told The Hill at the time. 

The Judiciary Committee and Intelligence committees also clashed at the start of the Trump administration with dueling investigations into Russian election interference in the 2016 election. 

Former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyHow conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide Bolton book sells 780,000 copies in first week, set to surpass 1M copies printed The Seila Law case: Liberty and political firing MORE agreed to testify before the Intelligence Committee, which is one of the most bipartisan panels in the Senate, but rejected a similar request from the Judiciary Committee, which was chaired by Grassley at the time. 

But the push to try to carve out distinct lanes of jurisdiction comes as Republicans are ramping up their investigations into decisions stemming from the Obama administration as Trump prepares to face off against Joe Biden in November. 

The investigations have fueled frustrations from Democrats, who view the probes as an attempt to hunt for fodder against Trump’s political enemies, including Biden, and potentially spread Russian misinformation. 

Those tensions have boiled over in recent weeks as Republicans have signaled they are preparing to dig in, including issuing the subpoena threats. Because Republicans control a majority on both panels, they could issue the subpoenas without support from Democrats. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrat asks Barr to preserve any records tied to environmental hacking probe Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list Key Democrat accuses Labor head of 'misleading' testimony on jobless benefits MORE (D-R.I.) said he wanted to get “some assurances” on how Graham would run the investigation. 

“I hope that we can receive appropriate assurances here that whatever investigation we undertake will not be controlled by the Trump White House and will not be controlled by the Trump campaign,” Whitehouse said. 

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinData shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Bottom line Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, added that “Congress should not conduct politically motivated investigations designed to attack or help any presidential candidate.” 

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Republicans have denied that their investigations are political, but Trump has placed public pressure on GOP senators to use their majority to investigate the Russia probe, the FISA court and Hunter Biden. For Graham, in particular, the investigation gives him a megaphone that’s popular with the GOP base ahead of his reelection campaign, and he’s planning to release a report on his findings before the election. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Teacher's union puts million behind ad demanding funding for schools preparing to reopen MORE (R-Ky.) has publicly endorsed Graham’s probe and embraced subpoenaing Obama-era officials. 

“Senate Republicans are taking steps to issue new subpoenas to a wide variety of Obama administration officials,” McConnell said. “The American people deserve answers about how such abuses could happen. And we intend to get those answers.”

Pressed on McConnell’s comment that Graham had “ball control” on reviewing the Russia investigation, Johnson reiterated that his investigation will be broader than that. 

“This is going to be a very cooperative effort across committees,” he added. “There’s a big pie here that needs to be divvied up.”