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House panels to grill Comey’s former chief of staff on FBI probe of Clinton

House panels to grill Comey’s former chief of staff on FBI probe of Clinton
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A pair of House committees on Thursday morning will grill former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFBI investigated whether McCabe leaked info about Flynn and Trump to media House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein Three reasons Mueller may not charge Trump with obstruction MORE’s onetime chief of staff as part of an ongoing joint probe into the bureau’s handling of the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarter Page files defamation lawsuit against DNC Dems fear party is headed to gutter from Avenatti’s sledgehammer approach Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight MORE’s private email server.

For months, FBI official James Rybicki has been hotly sought by Republicans, who have suggested his testimony could provide support for President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE’s decision to fire Comey in the spring of last year.

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Rybicki is expected to face questions from members of the Oversight and Government Reform and the Judiciary committees on the drafting of Comey’s 2016 memo clearing Clinton, that year’s Democratic presidential nominee, as well as a series of texts between two agents criticizing 2016 election candidates, including Trump.

Lawmakers will be limited to questions related to how the bureau handled the Clinton investigation, according to Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHouse Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein Poll: Republicans narrowly prefer Jordan to lead House GOP House panels postpone meeting with Rosenstein MORE (R-Ohio). The narrow scope is likely to avoid conflicting with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia. That investigation includes probing whether Trump’s dismissal of Comey was an effort to obstruct justice.

But the briefing, in a closed but unclassified setting, is still likely to be a marathon, sources say. A previous interview in the investigation, by FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, was an all-day affair that stretched into the evening.

Democrats have derided the investigation as a GOP effort to distract from and undermine the Mueller probe.

“This is all part of the Republican strategy called, ‘Hey, look over there!’ ” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyVirginia Dem rips administration on Khashoggi Democrats see hypocrisy in GOP attacks on ‘liberal mob’ Oversight Dems call for probe into citizenship question on 2020 census MORE (D-Va.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, who called the alleged effort “shameful.”

“The context is designed to discredit the Mueller investigation. In order to do that you have to discredit the FBI as an institution and the Justice Department as an institution, and this is all part and parcel of that.”

Republicans say they are interested in a host of decisions made in the course of the Clinton investigation.

“There’s obvious things that we’re going to get into — the exoneration letter, and the term was changed from ‘gross negligence’ to ‘extreme carelessness,’ questions on the decision made to run the investigation out of headquarters versus the field office, and just all of the unusual things about the investigation,” said Jordan, who has been one of the GOP’s fiercest attack dogs on perceived bias at the FBI.

“The decision Comey made to publicize it, the decision Comey made to actually do the press conference and the timing of certain things,” Jordan continued. “All of that will be on the table, as well as a couple specific things I want to get to.”

Jordan and other Republicans continue to raise questions on why a draft of Comey’s statement accused Clinton of being “grossly negligent” in handling classified information — a rarely used criminal threshold — while the FBI chief’s final draft of the memo ultimately rebuked Clinton for being “extremely careless.”

The statement was drafted weeks before Comey delivered the announcement of no charges.

Peter Strzok, the No. 2 FBI official leading the Clinton email investigation, was reportedly amongst those who weighed in on changing the description of Clinton’s actions in Comey’s statement.

The issue of Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation has gotten tangled up politically with the question of whether Trump committed obstruction of justice by firing the former director.

Trump initially pinned the firing on Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation, but later allowed that the probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia was on his mind when he made the decision — sparking allegations that he was trying to stifle the investigation.

Republicans have argued that Comey prejudged the investigation.

“Conclusion first, fact-gathering second — that’s no way to run an investigation. The FBI should be held to a higher standard than that, especially in a matter of such great public interest and controversy,” Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyDems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October American Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review Clinton's security clearance withdrawn at her request MORE (R-Iowa) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBrunson release spotlights the rot in Turkish politics and judiciary Saudi Arabia, Turkey to form joint investigation into Khashoggi disappearance Democrats must end mob rule MORE (R-S.C.) wrote in a letter to Christopher Wray, the new FBI director, in late August.

The Justice Department in the past has sought to block efforts to bring Rybicki before Congress. Last year, the heads of the Senate Judiciary Committee — Grassley and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinAmerican Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review Juan Williams: Trump, the Great Destroyer Top Judiciary Dems call for unredacted 'zero tolerance' memo MORE (D-Calif.) — pushed for him to appear for a transcribed interview limited to matters outside of the scope of Mueller’s investigation. But the department refused, “consistent with the Department’s long-standing policy regarding the confidentiality and sensitivity of information relating to pending matters.”

In the fall, Senate Republicans made public portions of a redacted transcript of an interview with two FBI officials done by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency tasked with protecting federal employees from prohibited personnel practices.

Grassley and Graham say one of the officials — who they believe to be Rybicki — told investigators that Comey decided in early May 2016 to draft a statement clearing Clinton of criminal charges, though also criticizing her handling of classified material on a private email server.

At that point the FBI had yet to interview Clinton as well as several other key witnesses, including Cheryl Mills, a senior aide to Clinton, and Bryan Pagliano, a former tech aide to Clinton.

Meanwhile, Strzok has come under immense Republican scrutiny for his involvement in the Russian probe and his time working for the special counsel.

Mueller removed the agent from his team after an investigation revealed that Strzok had sent text messages to FBI lawyer Lisa Page that appeared to criticize Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

The two committees met in December with McCabe, who faced a barrage of questions about events that took place at the Justice Department in 2016.

Republicans maintained that they were seeking information about Russian meddling, but Democrats characterized the meeting as a baseless fishing expedition aimed to distract from Mueller’s probe.

For Democrats, Connolly said, the goal Thursday will be to “protect interest of the witness, ensure another point of view is heard, protect rights of minority [and] do everything we can to protect due process.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed.