President Trump and Republicans in Congress are demanding new scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s actions as secretary of state, potentially jeopardizing investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election just as the probes are closing in on Trump’s inner circle.
In the span of a week, House and Senate Republican leaders announced two investigations into Obama-era decisions involving a uranium deal that increased Russia’s share of the U.S. nuclear market — and another into how the FBI handled Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Trump has cheered on the new Republican-driven investigations, which have resurrected some of the president's most-
favored jabs against Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Asked about the uranium deal Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “I can tell you that we do think that there’s a lot of cause for concern regarding that deal, and we certainly think it should be looked into.”
She denied, however, that the White House is trying to steer the congressional investigations away from Russian meddling.
“The president wants to see this completed,” she said. “There’s still no evidence of collusion between the president and anyone. . . . If any collusion took place, it would be between the DNC and the Clintons. And I think we’re starting to now see that all of the things that the Democrats had accused this president doing, they were actually guilty of themselves.” The DNC refers to the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats have cried foul, charging that the investigations are a blatant strategy to distract attention from the investigations into Trump’s alleged Kremlin ties, and suggesting the White House may be improperly working to assist the GOP’s efforts.
Democrats were particularly alarmed by news that Trump urged the Justice Department to lift a gag order on an FBI informant whom House leaders see as a key witness in their new uranium investigation.
A White House official confirmed Friday that Trump had discussed the issue with staff and that White House counsel Donald McGahn relayed Trump’s position to the Justice Department. But the official said Justice made its own decision on the issue.
The partisan breakdown has rocked all but one committee investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, including the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, the House Intelligence Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The exception is the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The breakdown also threatens to push the majority of congressional probes into Russia meddling into a political sideshow. It comes just days before Silicon Valley tech giants are scheduled to publicly testify on Capitol Hill about the details of Russia’s disinformation campaign — and just months before lawmakers want to deliver their findings, in part to help the public avoid a similar crisis during the 2018 election.
Republicans were careful to avoid focusing on Clinton as they launched one probe into former FBI director James B. Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case and another into the Obama-era Justice Department’s examination of Russian attempts to influence the U.S. nuclear industry.
But Trump took no such precautions, stating Friday on Twitter that there "was collusion with HC" and Russia — an apparent reference to his hotly disputed charge that Clinton helped secure a favorable ruling on the uranium deal in exchange for Russian contributions to her family foundation.
The developments prompted Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, to demand on Twitter a new investigation into whether the president "personally intervened w DOJ to advance case against political opponent," something he called "beyond disturbing."
The White House official denied Friday that Trump had done anything inappropriate.
“Are we directing it? No. Are we welcoming it? Yes,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Democrats have little power to make good on their threats beyond raising a political clamor. Schiff has no independent ability to subpoena sources or records without the cooperation of the committee chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is the main force behind the House GOP’s uranium probe, along with House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, told reporters this week that Democrats on the panel largely would strike out on their own. But she faces a similar limitation in compelling sources to furnish documents and testimony.
Nonetheless, on Friday Feinstein released copies of five letters seeking information that she had sent to the White House, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, the heads of Facebook and Twitter, and data firm Cambridge Analytica, which did work for the Trump campaign and whose chief executive had contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
As both sides press forward with their new probes, the political battle lines are forming along familiar fissures.
The relationship between Judiciary Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Feinstein has long teetered between collegial and combative. Each side has accused the other of slowing the Russia investigation. Feinstein is frustrated that Grassley wants to couple the probe of Trump’s Russia ties with inquiries into Clinton’s emails and the Russian uranium deal. Grassley’s side maintains that Feinstein’s resistance cost the committee a chance to interview former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in July, before his house was raided by federal agents.
While Grassley has indicated a preference for cooperating with Feinstein going forward, there is little indication they will. This month, Grassley sent dozens of letters demanding information and interviews from various individuals connected to a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower, the FBI's Clinton email investigation, the Russian uranium deal and a dossier of salacious allegations about Trump's exploits in Moscow — research that Clinton's campaign and the DNC paid for. Feinstein's signature was not on any of them.
In the House, divisions are even more severe. Nunes was accused this past spring of plotting with the White House to launch dubious claims that the names of Trump transition team officials appearing in surveillance reports had been improperly exposed. No evidence was found to support his conclusion, and Nunes — under political pressure and an ethics inquiry — ceded control of the Russia investigation to Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.).
Democrats are now accusing Nunes of similar coordination. Nunes and a White House official both said that they had not been in touch about the uranium investigation and were not working together. But Nunes did not rule out briefing the White House about his investigation in the future.
Meanwhile, Gowdy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) are partnering to examine the FBI’s handling of Clinton’s email probe. They announced their investigation in the same hour as Nunes told the news media about his uranium probe.
“Apparently, if President Trump says ‘jump,’ House Republicans say ‘how high’? And if he says ‘heel,’ they stand down from conducting serious, credible oversight,” the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), said in a statement this week. The next day, Cummings joined with the House Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), to send letters to Trump’s campaign consultants, including Cambridge Analytica, demanding information.
Cummings and Conyers do not have independent power to subpoena information from witnesses; on their committees, that power rests with the Republican chairman alone.