A prominent House Republican plans to ask a federal financial watchdog to audit the office of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, opening a new front of GOP attack on the secretive probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to President Trump’s campaign.
The pending request — from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), an outspoken Trump defender who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus as well as a House oversight subcommittee — appears to be mainly calibrated to force the disclosure of a three-page Justice Department memo spelling out the authorized scope of Mueller’s investigation.
Meadows, speaking Thursday during a taping of C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” that is to air Sunday, said he believed the audit is required under federal law and could not be completed without an unredacted copy of the memo written in August 2017 by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
“To have some special counsel going on, you know, this particular trail or that particular trail, it’s really not what Congress envisioned, and it’s certainly not what most Americans believe we’re doing,” Meadows said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately comment.
The 2017 “scope memo” has turned into a major flash point between the Justice Department and a cadre of House Republicans — including Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus — who say that Mueller has gone outside the bounds of his original charge to investigate possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Meadows and fellow Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has pushed for weeks to get unfettered access to the memo, but the Justice Department has so far refused them access. Only a heavily redacted version has been publicly shared as part of the prosecution of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort because, according to people familiar with the Justice Department’s thinking, prosecutors think its full disclosure could compromise Mueller’s probe.
Meadows, Jordan and other pro-Trump lawmakers have taken a much different view, leveling threats to hold Rosenstein in contempt and potentially impeach him over his lack of compliance with their requests.
“We believe that the American people need to know what the scope of the investigation [is],” Meadows said Thursday. “Now some would say, ‘Well, you’re getting involved in an ongoing criminal investigation.’ Well, it is an investigation, but the scope of that investigation is not part of the investigation. It just says, we’re going to look at all of this. We believe because we’re funding it that we should be able to look at that scope.”
The audit request, Meadows said, would be directed to the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress that has wide powers under federal law to examine government spending. Meadows said he was seeking support among other lawmakers for his letter, which could be sent to the GAO as soon as early next week.
The GAO operates pursuant to federal statutes authorizing it to scrutinize federal agencies, but the notion of using that authority to force disclosure of a classified document stands to be a long shot.
A more fruitful effort could come in court: Meadows’s remarks come a week after a federal judge in Virginia questioned whether fraud charges brought by the special counsel’s office against Manafort fell outside the authorized scope of the investigation.
While a Justice Department attorney, Michael Dreeben, told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III that the parts of the memo relating to Manafort have been already been publicly revealed, Ellis asked Dreeben for an unredacted copy.
During a public appearance last week in Washington, Rosenstein said that the Justice Department was determined to protect the integrity of its pending investigations and that he would not be cowed by threats of contempt or impeachment.
“I think they should understand by now that the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted,” Rosenstein said of the threats from Meadows and others. “We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law, and any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job.”
On Thursday, Meadows strongly denied that his request for disclosure constituted an attempt to meddle with Mueller’s investigation.
“Most Americans … what they’re saying is, ‘We want to make sure that President Trump didn’t collude with the Russians.’ Now when it gets beyond that, there gets to be a real problem, and you start to lose a whole lot of support by Republicans and Democrats and unaffiliated alike,” he said.
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.