Top Republicans urge Sessions to appoint special counsel to probe FBI
Two powerful House Republicans are pressuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the FBI's 2016 decision to spy on Carter Page, a former campaign aide to President Donald Trump.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy sent a letter Tuesday to Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, urging them to name a special counsel to review Republicans' allegations that the FBI misled a federal judge to obtain a warrant to conduct surveillance of Page, whose contacts with Kremlin-connected Russians had drawn agents' scrutiny.
"We think this is a very serious matter regarding conduct by the FBI and by some in the Department of Justice that calls for the appointment of a special counsel who will have subpoena and prosecutorial powers," Goodlatte told reporters in his Capitol office.
Democrats called the move a diversion.
"These are blatant attempts to distract from and undermine the credibility of Special Counsel [Robert] Mueller," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "Where there is no crime, there is no criminal investigation for a second special counsel to manage.”
The allegations of FBI misconduct were first laid out in a memo prepared by House Intelligence Committee Republicans and made public after Trump declassified the documents. Democrats have accused the GOP of omitting crucial context to paint a misleading picture of the agency's conduct and released their own memo describing the FBI's actions as proper.
The decision by the two prominent chairmen to seek a special counsel escalates the confrontation between Congress and the Justice Department and drives up the pressure on Sessions, who last week weathered a Twitter attack from Trump for refusing to assign Justice Department prosecutors to the matter. The Justice Department, Sessions said, had deferred to an internal watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, to review the FBI's handling of Page.
Gowdy and Goodlatte said only a special prosecutor would have the authority to compel testimony from former officials, such as former FBI Director James Comey or his outgoing deputy Andrew McCabe. They said that although the special counsel would have the ability to investigate crimes — and Gowdy said there would have to be a "suspicion of potential criminality" to initiate a special counsel — the investigator could also probe "subcriminal" matters.
"This is about the American people’s faith in an unbiased way that the highest laws of the land are enforced," Goodlatte said.
Gowdy and Goodlatte said the FBI's handling of a private intelligence dossier — compiled by a former British spy whose work was funded by a Democratic law firm connected to Hillary Clinton’s campaign — to obtain its spying warrant should fall under the purview of a special counsel. The House Intelligence Committee memo suggested the FBI failed to disclose the document’s political backing, though the Democratic rebuttal noted that the FBI had in fact noted that Steele’s work might serve political motives.
The two chairmen also said they want a special prosecutor to review the status of the FBI's ability to verify aspects of the dossier.
The move comes a week after Trump personally attacked Sessions on Twitter, calling his decision to rely on the inspector general "disgraceful" and insinuating that Horowitz was an "Obama guy." Sessions brushed back his boss, issuing a statement calling his decision to defer to Horowitz appropriate.
Goodlatte and Gowdy both professed respect for Horowitz but said he cannot to lead an investigation that might require interviews with witnesses no longer at the Justice Department — like former FBI Director James Comey — or people from other departments and agencies like the State Department. Congress, too, they said, shouldn't be responsible for the probe because lawmakers can't prosecute criminal activity and lacks the public confidence to conduct a thorough, objective probe.
"We leak like the Gossip Girls," Gowdy said.
The gambit by Gowdy and Goodlatte — both of whom are retiring from Congress at the end of the year — will provide fodder for Trump allies in Congress demanding more scrutiny of the FBI and Justice Department investigators who oversaw twin probes into Hillary Clinton's handling of classified information and the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia. Trump supporters have argued that senior agents involved in both probes were biased against Trump, though they've presented no clear evidence that this bias infected the investigations.
The committee, which oversees the FBI and Justice Department, is stacked with some of Trump's most hardline GOP allies, who have fashioned themselves as sharp critics of the FBI in recent months, such as Reps. Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Ron DeSantis, Steve King, Louie Gohmert and Andy Biggs.
One option that Gowdy and Goodlatte didn't discuss: empowering Horowitz to interview former DOJ employees. It's a power that Horowitz and other inspectors general have requested as recently as November, when they told Gowdy's committee that their inability to reach former officials hamstrung their probes.
It's also not clear that Sessions or Rosenstein can simply appoint a special counsel at the request of Congress.
At a Judiciary Committee hearing in November, some Republicans pressed Sessions directly to appoint a special counsel to probe the FBI's decisions in the Clinton investigation. Jordan said evidence had emerged that appeared to warrant the decision.
"'Looks like' is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel," Sessions shot back.
Gowdy described potential areas of criminal behavior he said a special prosecutor could pursue — including whether "bias and animus" tainted the FBI investigation, misrepresenting information to a court or failing to secure investigative information.