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The GOP’s very strange letter calling for an investigation of Christopher Steele

Sen. Charles E. Grassley speaks to constituents at a town hall in Iowa Falls, Iowa, on Feb. 21. (Rachel Mummey for The Washington Post)

A pair of GOP senators sent a letter to the Justice Department on Friday urging an investigation into Christopher Steele, the intelligence agent behind that famous dossier from the Russia investigation.

And the whole thing is rather strange.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) sent the letter to the DOJ and FBI. In it, the pair says they have reason to believe Steele might have lied about disseminating information from the dossier.

But while they make the allegation publicly in the letter, the details of Steele's potential lying are contained within an attached document marked classified. In other words, they are suggesting Steele may have lied, but don't say what he might have lied about.

And indeed, it would be impossible for them to do so, given their accusation is apparently based upon his interviews with the FBI, which were recently shared with the Judiciary Committee and aren't public. But the point here is that they made the allegation of Steele's lying public.

As Devlin Barrett and Tom Hamburger note in their piece, that rubs some legal experts the wrong way. One former federal prosecutor, Peter Zeidenberg, called it “nonsense.” He suggested it was a political effort intended to impact the Russia investigation — in which Steele's dossier has become the focus of GOP allegations of improper conduct by federal law enforcement — rather than a serious letter. He said that he had never heard of such a letter being released.

Another reason it's strange is that Grassley and Graham are alleging that Steele may have lied using information the Justice Department already has and had shared with them. It's not clear why Grassley and Graham believe they see potential lies in Steele's interviews that the investigators haven't noticed. It's possible they have information from their own investigation that leads them to believe Steele lied, but they don't say as much in their cover letter.

How is Fusion GPS connected to the Trump dossier, Donald Trump Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting and the 2016 election? The Fact Checker explains. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The backdrop against which this letter has suddenly emerged is extremely important here.

There is an increasing effort among Republicans and the conservative-leaning media to question the legitimacy of the Russia investigation. Increasingly prominent in that effort are attempts to use the Steele dossier as the basis for a deep-state conspiracy against the president. The argument is basically that the dossier was used as the pretext for investigating the Trump campaign — despite The Washington Post and others reporting that other things also factored into that decision — and that it represents collusion between the Democrats who helped fund it and federal law enforcement. Grassley has long called for answers about the FBI's use of the Steele dossier. The FBI at one point reached an agreement to use Steele as a source, though that agreement was scrapped when his role in creating the dossier became public.

As a journalist, you generally prefer that things be stated on the record for all to see. But in this case, Grassley and Graham are making a very serious accusation about someone who is deeply involved in the most significant political story in our country right now, and without any substantiation.

Why not make this referral privately? What's the purpose of making it public, besides raising suspicions about Steele personally — and without the chance to really defend himself against unspecified charges?

About the only reason I can think of is that they want to apply political pressure — either because they don't trust the Justice Department to investigate Steele if they inquired privately or because they want to make the case that the investigation ignored their concerns if it doesn't, or both.

Indeed, it's not difficult for Democrats to make this look like a political document intended to besmirch Steele's reputation and further raise questions about the actual purpose of the dossier, which was eventually published by BuzzFeed News and much of which has yet to be substantiated. And it's also not difficult to imagine this becoming a pretty troublesome precedent for key people involved in future federal investigations.