National Security

House GOP intensifies assault on Mueller probe

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House Republicans are intensifying a multipronged assault to chip away at special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election.

A vocal group of conservative members has for weeks blitzed the airwaves decrying bias in Mueller’s investigation and on Thursday, two prominent members called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to step down from the Department of Justice (DOJ) — a resignation that could clear the way for the special counsel’s dismissal.

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On Wednesday, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), secured the backing of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to enforce a swath of subpoenas probing the Justice Department’s use of the so-called Steele dossier in the probe.

And on Friday, two Republican senators asked the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into the author of the dossier, Christopher Steele.

“After reviewing how Mr. Steele conducted himself in distributing information contained in the dossier and how many stop signs the DOJ ignored in its use of the dossier, I believe that a special counsel needs to review this matter,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who issued the referral with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Grassley’s Democratic counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), says she was not consulted on the referral.

The increased action by Republicans comes in a midterm election year where the party is worried about losing its House and Senate majorities, given President Trump’s anemic poll numbers. While the Senate map gives the GOP good odds to continue its majority, members of both parties see potential for Democrats to retake the House.

The dossier has become a key weapon in Republican attempts to undermine the Mueller probe, as lawmakers have questioned whether the shadowy document was used as the justification for a politically-motivated investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to swing the election.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have also questioned whether the dossier was used as the basis for an application for a surveillance warrant on Trump.

Some conservatives on Capitol Hill have targeted Mueller directly, arguing that he has stacked his team with lawyers who supported Trump’s campaign rival, Hillary Clinton.

“We’ll investigate the unprecedented bias against President Trump that exists when we allow people who hate the president to participate in the investigations against him,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said in December.

But those attacks — on Mueller and on the Justice Department more broadly — have made some Republicans on Capitol Hill uncomfortable. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) told reporters recently that his “heart would be broken” if Nunes followed through with plans to investigate “corruption” at the FBI, for example.

“My colleagues on [the House Intelligence Committee] would tell you some days I can’t remember if I still work for the Department of Justice,” he said. “I am a defender of the Department of Justice more than I am an attacker.”

Leadership in both the House and Senate have said that Mueller should be allowed to finish his work unimpeded.

The dossier is a compendium of opposition research, including false claims and other information that has been confirmed, into then-candidate Trump, alleging multiple points of contact with Russia. It was paid for during the primaries by The Washington Free Beacon and later by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that the FBI’s attention was initially drawn to the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia not by the dossier, but by a representative of Australia’s government who had met with then-Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos, who has since pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements to the FBI.

Critics of the dossier, however, have largely dismissed the account in the Times.

“Belief in this narrative requires one to blatantly disregard a series of fundamental questions,” like why did the FBI wait more than six months to interview Papadopoulos, wrote Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in a Thursday op-ed calling for Sessions to leave.

Despite the “manufactured hysteria” over the investigation, Meadows and Jordan wrote, “a simple truth remains: There is no evidence of any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”

Sessions has been unable to control what they described as a parade of leaks from the bureau, Meadows and Jordan wrote, and must step aside.

Mueller’s name is not mentioned in the op-ed.

If Sessions stepped down, it would open the door for Trump to appoint a replacement open to dismissing the special counsel. Because Sessions has recused himself from the Russia probe, the power to fire Mueller currently rests with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Trump has railed against Sessions for the recusal, which he reportedly believes was an abrogation of the attorney general’s duty to “protect” him.

Nunes has been one of the fiercest attack dogs in pursuit of the dossier. He has for months been involved in a feud with Justice Department over access to information related to how the bureau used the dossier, including whether or not it paid Steele. He has threatened to hold senior officials in contempt of Congress if they did not comply — a bid that was ultimately successful with Ryan’s backing this week.

It is common practice for the FBI to pay informants, one former senior FBI official who worked on national security issues told The Hill.

The former official also noted that, in general, the application for a surveillance warrant involves several layers of authentication of information, suggesting that if any of the information from the dossier were used in an application, it would have been corroborated. Justice Department lawyers often modify orders based on feedback from the court — and they must show probable cause that the target is acting as an agent of a foreign power.

Trump has said that he expects to be treated “fairly” by Mueller, although he has repeatedly derided the probe as a sham and a “witch hunt.” The investigation has so far produced two indictments, including Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and two guilty pleas, including onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“For the purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter,” Trump told the Times.

Tags Chuck Grassley Devin Nunes Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump FBI George Papadopoulos Hillary Clinton Jeff Sessions Jim Jordan Lindsey Graham Mark Meadows Matt Gaetz Paul Manafort Paul Ryan Robert Mueller Rod Rosenstein Russia Trey Gowdy

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