Trump Faces Another Senate Probe as Judiciary Panel Gears UpBy
Grassley, Feinstein discuss inquiry into possible obstruction
No. 2 Senate Republican blasts idea as ‘wholly inappropriate’
U.S. President Donald Trump has another growing headache on Capitol Hill: a bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee probe of his firing of FBI Director James Comey that Democrats say should look into possible obstruction of justice.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, have been hammering out an agreement for the scope of their investigation, which is beginning to take shape.
Feinstein said Thursday that the panel needs to hear from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Comey, as well as associates of Comey from his time as FBI chief -- and that it should compel their testimony if they’re unwilling to appear voluntarily. Grassley declined to comment on whether they would subpoena Comey or others until he and Feinstein finish working out the agreement.
A new investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee adds to the many other inquiries underway, notably special counsel Robert Mueller’s expanding Russia probe, which now appears to include questions about whether Trump tried to obstruct justice. Mueller plans to interview two top U.S. intelligence officials about whether Trump sought their help to get the FBI to back off a related probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to three people familiar with the inquiry.
On the congressional side, most of the attention so far has been focused on a separate Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible collusion with associates of Trump or his campaign. The House Intelligence Committee is conducting its own, parallel inquiry.
Trump continued bashing the various probes on Twitter Friday morning. “After 7 months of investigations & committee hearings about my ‘collusion with the Russians,’ nobody has been able to show any proof. Sad!” he wrote. On Thursday, Trump said in tweets that the investigations amounted to a “witch hunt” pursuing “phony” allegations.
And Feinstein’s push to pursue whether obstruction of justice was at play brought a swift objection from the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
Cornyn said in an interview Thursday it would be "wholly inappropriate" for the Judiciary Committee to probe obstruction.
"We’re not the FBI, we’re not the Department of Justice, we’re the legislative branch. And it’s appropriate to do oversight and investigations to learn how we can improve the law and policy, but in terms of whether any offense occurred, that’s within Director Mueller’s purview," Cornyn said. "In fact we could end up harming the investigation."
Still, Grassley this week made clear that he is planning to exert his panel’s jurisdiction over some of the matters swirling around Trump.
"The Judiciary Committee has an obligation to fully investigate any alleged improper partisan interference in law enforcement investigations," Grassley wrote in a letter Wednesday. "It is my view that fully investigating the facts, circumstances, and rationale for Mr. Comey’s removal will provide us the opportunity to do that on a cooperative, bipartisan basis."
Feinstein wrote a letter to Grassley late Thursday also calling for testimony from acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers to testify in the probe of Comey’s firing and possible attempts by Trump to influence the FBI’s investigations.
"I think that’s going to be a part of it," she said of probing obstruction of justice. "This is our oversight responsibility."
But Cornyn questioned the value of bringing Comey and others to hearings in the Judiciary Committee when they have already testified before the Intelligence Committee.
"That’s kind of a little ridiculous," Cornyn said. "The idea that you bring in witnesses repetitively and ask them the same questions seems a little like a wild goose chase."
Cornyn also said at this point that "there didn’t appear to be any there there" on obstruction, but if Mueller finds there is, "he’d have to prove it in a court of law."
Democrats, however, are insisting that the Judiciary committee assert its jurisdiction.
‘Heartbeat’ in Committee
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said "it’s nice to see a little bit of heartbeat" in the committee. "We kind of flatlined for a while," he added.
Trump has continued to reject any wrongdoing, blasting the proliferation of inquiries into his affairs.
“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history -- led by some very bad and conflicted people!,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said any investigation by that panel also needs to examine the conduct of Loretta Lynch, who was attorney general in the run-up to the 2016 election. Republicans have accused her trying to influence an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
"The accusations now are the current and former attorney general were political,” Graham said in an interview Thursday. “That has nothing to do with Russia, as much as it has to do with how the Department of Justice is being run and you know, all of that stuff is in our bailiwick.”
"You’ve got the former FBI director accusing the current attorney general, the former attorney general, that he was queasy about ’em both, so I want to find out about all of that," Graham added.
Graham also wants to question Comey about his leaking of a memo to the press in order to prompt the naming of a special counsel. "That’s not exactly the behavior I’d expect of a former FBI director," he said.
Whatever the Judiciary Committee ends up investigating, it’s off to a slower start than some of the other committees.
The Senate Intelligence panel already held a high-profile public hearing with Comey. It also took testimony behind closed doors from Rogers and Coats.
Mueller has also met with the leaders of Senate Intelligence and is set to meet with a leading Republican and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee as he and lawmakers seek to avoid conflicts over their parallel investigations.
“We’ll be meeting with him in the next few days. It will be a closed hearing,” Adam Schiff of California, the panel’s top Democrat, told reporters.