National Security

GOP feud with FBI ratchets up

Greg Nash

The knives are out for the FBI on Capitol Hill.

Conservative lawmakers from four separate committees are raising alarm bells about a tranche of missing text messages between two FBI agents assigned to the investigation into Russia and President Trump’s campaign, saying it calls into “further question the credibility and objectivity of certain officials at the FBI.”

Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee lawmakers are refusing to allow the FBI to view a classified four-page memo that GOP members say shows abuse by the bureau of government surveillance powers.

“Well, yeah, they’re the ones that had the problem,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said Tuesday, when asked why the bureau’s request to see the document is being denied.

In another sign of tension, Axios reported Monday night that FBI Director Christopher Wray threatened to resign over pressure from the White House to dismiss Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a longtime GOP target.

It all comes amid signs that special counsel Robert Mueller is moving closer to interviewing Trump as he continues his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including possible collusion with members of Trump’s campaign.

{mosads}Democrats have painted investigations of the FBI’s conduct by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Intelligence, Oversight and Government Reform, and Judiciary committees as transparent efforts to discredit Mueller’s probe.

 

The fighting has strained the relationship between the bureau and Capitol Hill Republicans for months, culminating in a rare public statement from the FBI confirming they had requested, and been denied access to, the memo. Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) on Tuesday called the relationship “rocky,” saying “2016 and 2017 haven’t been good years for [the Justice Department] and FBI.”

“To say we want to see your memo when for months and months they haven’t let us see lots of stuff we wanted to see — the memo came from what you gave us, FBI,” Gowdy told Fox News. “There is nothing new in there other than what you gave us and you showed us.”

The Intelligence panel is wrangling over publicly releasing the memo, which would require a committee vote. Lawmakers of both parties have described it as a set of conclusions based on Republican research into FBI misconduct, with Democrats condemning it as misleading allegations and committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) characterizing it as “facts.”

There are also signs the GOP is not united on the subject of the FBI, an organization that historically has not been seen as an enemy of the Republican Party.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), whose panel is also investigating Russia’s election interference, told CNN Tuesday that the FBI had been cooperative in providing documents to Congress.

“I’m not going to read anything into it other than it may be a technical glitch at the bureau,” he said of the missing texts. “The fact that they have provided the rest of them certainly doesn’t show an intent to try to withhold anything.”

Democrats have been more direct in their criticism. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called the allegations in the memo “a conspiracy theory concocted by Chairman Nunes” after reviewing the underlying materials.

One important question is whether Republicans will be able to release any of the intelligence used to craft the memo. A working group, including Gowdy, Nunes and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), met over the weekend to discuss the possibility. Nunes has “a plan,” according to Conaway, but no further details have been made public.

In a conversation with The Hill on Monday, Nunes said claims that the memo was unpersuasive without the underlying evidence were an example of Democratic obstruction.

The five months of missing messages between senior counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page has thrown gasoline on the fire. The messages begin again on May 17, the day that Mueller was appointed.

It “is harder and harder for us to explain one strange coincidence after another,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) told Fox News on Tuesday.

Gowdy, Ratcliffe and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have revealed selective excerpts from the texts the bureau did turn over on Friday, arguing that they display “stunning” bias against Trump.

Page and Strzok were having an extramarital affair and frequently discussed the news of the day over texts, according to previously released messages. In those missives, they often criticized then-candidate Trump as unfit for office, with Page at one point writing “this man cannot be president.” The two also criticized the Obama administration, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s team and other Democrats.

The messages were uncovered during the course of an inspector general investigation into the bureau’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s email practices while secretary of State. Page had already left the team at that point, and Mueller removed Strzok when he was made aware of the texts.

The latest set of messages has not yet been viewed by reporters in full. In one excerpt published by Johnson on Tuesday, Strzok and Page discuss becoming a part of Mueller’s team, weighing both their own relationship and the likely outcome of that investigation.

“You and I both know the odds are nothing. If I thought it was likely, I’d be there no question. I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concerned there’s no big there there,” Strzok wrote to Page.

Johnson provided his own interpretation of that text, telling a radio show in Milwaukee, “In other words, Peter Strzok was the FBI deputy assistant director of the counterintelligence division, and the man had a plan to do something, because he just couldn’t abide Donald Trump being president.”

Trump, who has repeatedly characterized the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt,” tweeted Tuesday that the news of the lost text messages was “one of the biggest stories in a long time.”

Even some former FBI officials concede that the texts between the two officials are damning. Ron Hosko, a former assistant director at the bureau, told The Hill they showed “misconduct [that] has to be addressed.”

But he was far more dubious of the Republican narrative on the memo.

“There are voices painting this picture of a conspiracy because more than anything they believe it’s getting them traction to push the Mueller investigation off the rails,” he said.

“It is better for them not to have it out there because right now it’s a bogeyman — people can assume that the worst is in the memo. It’s their best strategy today to get traction on it, while damage is being done to the FBI.”

Gowdy on Tuesday insisted that he “supports” Mueller and “has no interest” in interfering with the investigation.

He has repeatedly said that it “breaks his heart” to report “bad apples” at the FBI.

Jonathan Easley contributed.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Devin Nunes Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John Ratcliffe Mike Conaway Richard Burr Robert Mueller Ron Johnson Trey Gowdy
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