House GOP sets three FBI interviews in Clinton probe
House Republicans are preparing to conduct the first interviews in more than four months in their investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.
A joint investigation run by the Judiciary and the Oversight and Government Reform committees has set three witness interviews for June, including testimony from Bill Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, and Michael Steinbach, the former head of the FBI’s national security division.
Multiple congressional sources confirmed Priestap’s interview. Steinbach confirmed to The Hill that he would be appearing.
The third witness is John Giacalone, who preceded Steinbach as the bureau’s top national security official and oversaw the first seven months of the Clinton probe, according to multiple congressional sources.
Priestap, in particular, has come under fire from conservatives.
As the head of the FBI counterintelligence division, he held a pivotal leadership position in both the Clinton and Russia probes and was in a supervisory position over counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, whose text messages criticizing Trump and other political figures during the 2016 presidential race have been the focus of a maelstrom of scrutiny from the right.
Republicans are ramping back up the controversial investigation amidst what has become a direct assault by a number of conservatives on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.
President Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill have alleged widespread misconduct within the FBI and the Justice Department during the 2016 election and say it is evidence of systemic bias against the president.
The allegations have spawned a number of counter-investigations and thrust a host of formerly anonymous FBI and Justice Department career officials into the limelight.
The joint Judiciary–Oversight review — led by chairs Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), respectively — is centered on the bureau’s decisionmaking in both the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State and the investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
But its progress had stalled in the months since it was first announced.
Since October, the panel is believed to have interviewed only two witnesses — of about 20 potential witnesses — infuriating conservative members who are eager to uncover what some have characterized as “corruption.”
All three interviews are scheduled separately. Priestap will appear in the first week of June, Giacalone in the second and Steinbach in the final week of the month, according to the congressional source.
Democrats have derided the probe as a partisan exercise designed to shield Trump by muddying the waters around the federal investigation into his campaign.
Gowdy has described the investigation as a serious inquiry into the bureau’s conduct during the Clinton investigation — also under the microscope of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz — rather than an effort to re-litigate the decision not to bring charges against the former secretary of State.
Horowitz is slated to release his own report imminently, raising some question about whether he will pre-empt the interviews.
The inspector general earlier this spring released a report from a completed portion of the investigation that was deeply critical of former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a top target of conservatives alleging wrongdoing at the Justice Department.
The Judiciary–Oversight inquiry is running on parallel tracks to an investigation spearheaded by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has zeroed in on what he describes as surveillance abuses by the Justice Department and the FBI during the election.
But the two investigations — alongside similar probes from a handful of Senate Republicans — share many of the same targets, including Strzok.
Although lawmakers have clamored for Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page to testify, neither Strzok nor Page is expected to appear before the committee in June.
But as his subordinate, Strzok would run decisions by Priestap, his text message exchanges with Page show.
Priestap was also involved in another hotly-contested episode during the 2016 election: The decision by then-FBI Director James Comey to call Clinton’s handling of her emails “extremely careless” and not the potentially criminal “grossly negligent.”
According to records released earlier this year by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Priestap reviewed and provided edits to the statement Comey gave in July 2016 announcing that he would not be recommending charges.
That statement has long fueled conservative ire. Trump and other Republicans have seized on the wording change and the revelation that Comey began drafting the statement before he had interviewed Clinton as evidence that the FBI was trying to shield Clinton from prosecution.
“Comey drafted the Crooked Hillary exoneration long before he talked to her (lied in Congress to Senator [Lindsey Graham]), then based his decisions on her poll numbers. Disgruntled, he, McCabe, and the others, committed many crimes!” Trump tweeted last month.
Comey has said that he could not establish that Clinton acted with criminal intent — and that “no reasonable prosecutor” would charge Clinton based on “gross negligence,” a standard that has been used only once in the statute’s 99-year history.
Priestap’s name also appears in a controversial memo drafted by staff for Nunes, alleging that the Justice Department inappropriately obtained a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign aide Carter Page by using an opposition research dossier into Trump that was paid for in part by Clinton.
The use of allegations from the so-called Steele dossier has been ground zero for many of the conservative allegations of abuse.
According to the Nunes memo, Priestap told the committee that corroboration of the Steele dossier was in its “infancy” at the time the bureau first applied for a surveillance warrant on Page.
Steinbach, as executive assistant director of the national security division, also worked closely with Comey and Strzok on both the Clinton and Russia investigations and was involved in the drafting of the July statement.
He left the FBI last year and has been a public defender of a number of GOP targets at the FBI, including McCabe and Strzok.
“To think Pete could not do his job objectively shows no understanding of the organization,” Steinbach told The Washington Post last year.
“We have Democrats, we have Republicans, we have conservatives and liberals. Having personal views doesn’t prevent us from independently following the facts.”