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Senate panel delays confirmation hearing for ex-Rep. Issa, citing FBI background check

Former congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Aug. 28, 2018. He is nominated to lead the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.
Former congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Aug. 28, 2018. He is nominated to lead the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

A Senate committee abruptly postponed a confirmation hearing Thursday for former Republican congressman Darrell Issa after his nomination to lead the U.S. Trade and Development Agency hit a snag over an issue in his FBI background check.

The postponement of Issa’s hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee came after Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the panel, raised concerns about an FBI background check conducted on Issa that, he said, might be “problematic and potentially disqualifying for Senate confirmation.” He did not reveal the nature of the issue, and other committee members who have not seen the FBI report said they, too, wanted time to review the issue.

“I’m not talking about a nominee’s favorite color or where they had dinner,” Menendez (N.J.) said. “I’m talking about serious issues that go to credibility and suitability for these positions.”

Senate panel headed for clash over several diplomatic and development nominees

The panel did move forward with hearings on three other Trump nominees, two of which have sparked some degree of controversy: Marshall Billingslea, nominated to serve as undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, faced questions about his record as a Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, in which he was involved in the approval of the use of torture techniques against military detainees.

Michael Pack, who is nominated to become chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, was pressed on his association with Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House strategist and populist firebrand, and whether he would seek to impose his conservative views on the journalists he would manage at Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Televisión Martí and other overseas media networks.

Issa, however, did not give an opening statement, let alone answer questions. After conferring privately with Menendez and Issa, Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) announced the postponement after panel members objected to moving forward with the hearing.

“We’re going to get this file open so that all of you can have a chance to review that file and people to ask questions intelligently,” he said.

Issa, who is considering a bid for a House seat, said in an interview that he was willing to answer any questions about the matter in public Thursday and suggested that Democrats were only interested in delaying his confirmation.

“The reality is that, as far as I know, what Senator Menendez is referring to, I’m substantially certain, is all available on my Wikipedia,” he said. “It’s clear that his goal is to stop me from serving the president.”

Issa said the only issue Menendez raised in their private conversation “had to do with allegations of activity of mine when I was 17” when he was an Army private. “He’s not making allegations during my 18 years as a member of the House or anything else that was done as an adult,” he added.

Juan Pachón, a spokesman for Menendez, declined to comment on Issa’s claim.

Past media accounts have detailed questions about Issa’s military record, including a demotion and an allegation of car theft that did not result in prosecution. He has also faced scrutiny for another incident in his past, a 1982 fire that destroyed a business owned by Issa that was investigated as a possible arson.

Issa, 65, came to national prominence by funding the 2003 drive to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D). The effort succeeded in ousting Davis, but voters elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Issa, to replace him. Later, Issa drew headlines as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee during the Obama administration.

While his nomination remains in limbo, Issa has openly floated a possible run for the House seat now held by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.). Hunter, who represents a neighboring San Diego County district to the one Issa previously represented until January, is facing a federal indictment on numerous campaign finance violations.

The candidate filing deadline is Dec. 6; Issa has told reporters he would run for the House if he is not confirmed to the trade post by early November.

Risch on Thursday did not lay out a timeline for rescheduling Issa’s hearing, nor a vote on his nomination.

“I commit to this committee, there’ll be no vote on Mr. Issa until the White House has agreed to allow you all to see that,” he said, referring to the FBI report.

Billingslea, meanwhile, faced bipartisan scrutiny of his Bush administration record, with Menendez and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) raising concerns that he had advocated for so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a senior adviser to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Menendez pointed to a 2003 memo to Rumsfeld in which Billingslea called several of those techniques “not controversial” despite later being banned by Congress.

Billingslea said the techniques were not illegal at the time and that because he was “not an expert on interrogation” he had to rely on other Pentagon officials’ judgment. “I never supported any measure that was remotely, possibly determined to be illegal by the lawyers,” he said.

Paul countered that there were, in fact, disputes inside the Pentagon as to whether the recommended techniques were legal: “At the time, you did agree to these things, and I think that’s an important fact.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) asked Billingslea how he would have credibility as the top State Department deputy on human rights matters given his involvement in the approval of torture methods.

“We have to talk to our counterparts about the fact that we are a nation of laws, and we learn from our mistakes, and we evolve,” Billingslea replied. “And therefore we will expect that other countries understand this and learn with us on these matters.”

Pack addressed questions from Democrats about his background — particularly about his dealings with Bannon, who served as an executive producer of two documentary films that Pack produced and directed. Pack also praised Bannon in a March 2017 op-ed, calling him “among other things, a successful conservative documentary filmmaker, a rare achievement.”

“How can we expect someone who has publicly embraced his role as a conservative documentarian to steward an agency that is charged with supporting independent, politically unmotivated press?” Menendez asked.

Pack told the panel that he would be able to set his personal views aside to honor the traditional independence of the agency’s journalists and pointed to his track record, including his time as an executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the former U.S. Information Agency.

“Their independence is the bedrock of the institution,” he said. “I guess it comes down to the need to say no when you get a call from somebody, a political person, telling a journalist what to do.”

“Are you capable of saying no?” Menendez asked.

“I think so,” Pack said. “I have said no before.”

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