On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appeared before the House Judiciary Committee for what was somewhat misleadingly billed as an “oversight hearing.” In fact, the point of Wednesday’s hearing was to cast doubt on the integrity and fairness of Robert Mueller’s probe into links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In his opening statement, Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte set the tone and accused Mueller’s team of exhibiting an “extreme bias against Mr. Trump.” Goodlatte charged that “high-ranking FBI officials involved in the Clinton investigation were personally invested in the outcome of the election, and clearly let their strong political opinions cloud their professional judgment.”
Texas Republican Lamar Smith worried that the “special counsel is casting too wide of a net” and demanded to know if Mueller had made any request to “expand the original scope of the investigation,” particularly with regard to the finances of Trump’s family members.
Ohio Republican Steve Chabot recited the names of those on Mueller’s team, which he accused of being “a group of Democrat [sic] partisans,” who at one time or another had made campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. The actual amounts of these contributions were provided by Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson, who found that Mueller’s investigators and attorneys have, in total, donated over $62,000 to Democrats as against $2,750 to Republicans over the last several campaign cycles.
“No one on Mueller’s team,” complained Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, “likes Trump.”
Another popular Republican target was FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok, whom The Hill has aptly described as “GOP Enemy No. 1.”
Strzok has come under fire for sending politically charged, anti-Trump text messages to his FBI colleague Lisa Page.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert read through a number of the more ill-considered messages sent by Strzok. Gohmert then dutifully expressed his no doubt deeply felt outrage over the idea that a federal law-enforcement official might harbor private political opinions.
Republicans seem to be both overreaching and overreacting when they claim that Strzok single-handedly made the determination that freed Hillary Clinton from legal jeopardy. As Andrew McCarthy, a former US Attorney turned conservative pundit, has noted,“If you’ve made up your mind that Peter Strzok is responsible for tanking the Hillary Clinton case, and that he was putting his thumb on Mueller’s scale against the Trump administration, you are way out ahead of what we actually know—and you’re probably wrong.”
The charge, made repeatedly at Wednesday’s hearing and endlessly promoted by Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere, that Mueller is conducting a partisan witch hunt is, of course, unfair. But while the focus on Strzok reeks of political opportunism, there would seem to be legitimate questions regarding ties between a recently demoted associate attorney general, Bruce Ohr, and Fusion GPS, the firm behind the notorious Steele dossier.
Recent reports indicate Ohr, whose wife had worked for Fusion GPS on Russia matters, met with Christopher Steele during the 2016 campaign, and then met with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson after the election. On Wednesday, Rosenstein testified that he never involved Ohr in the Russian investigation.
House Republicans are also not wrong to demand to know whether the Steele dossier was used to help obtain FISA-court surveillance warrants on US citizens, as they did at Wednesday’s hearing.
At issue is whether Congress has a right to know if the accusations of collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia were based on unverified allegations, compiled by Steele, a former MI6 officer whose tour in Russia ended in 1993.
The dossier’s core claim is that “the Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for at least 5 years.” In other words: as far back as 2011, at a time when Trump was host of Celebrity Apprentice, Russia began cultivating Trump as an intelligence asset. As former British ambassador to Russia Sir Tony Brenton observed, if the Russians “did that, they showed remarkable prescience because at the time he [Trump] had nothing to do with American politics.”
And because the Judiciary Committee has oversight of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the federal courts, it would seem inarguable that it is entitled to know whether the dossier was used by the Justice Department to obtain a FISA surveillance warrant against members of the Trump campaign.
Indeed, in April, CNN reported that the FBI used the Steele dossier “as part of the justification” in seeking “approval from the secret court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to monitor the communications of Carter Page.”
Meanwhile, Washington eagerly awaits the arrival of the Mueller report. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, White House lawyer Ty Cobb suggested the end was near, claiming that “all the White House interviews are over.”
Whether or not that proves to be the case, Mueller’s report should shed some much-needed light on the lingering question of collusion. After all, the May 17 order that created the Office of Special Counsel authorized Mueller to conduct an investigation into “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
But it is, amid all the new developments, conflicting narratives, and retracted stories, easy to lose sight of the original charges: that Russia hacked the DNC and delivered stolen e-mails to Wikileaks, and colluded with the Trump campaign in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
It remains entirely possible that that is what in fact occurred. But, alas, there has been no publicly revealed evidence to back up those charges. The January 6 declassified intelligence report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is often cited as proof positive that Russian interfered in the election, cautioned that its judgments were “not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation, and precedents.” (Emphasis added.)
At the time of the ODNI report’s release, New York Times reporter Scott Shane observed that “What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack.… Instead, the message from the agencies essentially amounts to ‘trust us.’”
Perhaps, in the end, Mueller’s report will, at long last, put the matter to rest.