Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been embodying bipartisanship in recent weeks — a rarity on Capitol Hill.
Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, drew the ire of Democrats a year ago for blocking a hearing for President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Now he’s doing battle with Republican leaders over holding hearings on the firing of FBI Director James Comey and with the Trump administration for Justice Department stonewalling.
The judiciary committee wants to look into Comey’s dismissal, as proposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein, the ranking Democrat, but with the backing of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. It also is interested in former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s role in the Hillary Clinton investigation.
With Washington awash in probes and seemingly little else, Republican leaders are willing to move forward on possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, but are wary of political fallout from revisiting the Comey termination.
But Grassley wants to remove political pressure from the FBI, a paramount concern given investigations surrounding both presidential candidates in the 2016 campaign. “There should be no improper interference with FBI investigations to favor any elected official or candidate of either party,” he stated.
Comey had declined to appear before the judiciary committee, which has oversight over the Justice Department, his former employer, but testified earlier this month before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
His remarks were damning for the president (who perceived them as both “vindication” and “lies,” a strange mix), while raising questions about Lynch possibly running interference for Clinton, also alluded to in a New York Times report in April.
Comey mentioned Lynch’s insistence on calling the investigation into Clinton’s unauthorized use of State Department emails on her private email server as a “matter.”
“At one point, (Lynch) directed me not to call it ‘an investigation,’ but instead to call it a ‘matter,’ which confused me and concerned me,” he said.
Comey added the request “gave the impression the attorney general was looking to align the way we talked about our investigation with the way a political campaign was describing the same activity.”
He agreed because the FBI policy was not to announce investigations, including its probe of the Trump campaign. But after leaving the meeting with Lynch, the Times reported, George Toscas, a national security prosecutor, ribbed Comey, “I guess you’re the Federal Bureau of Matters now.”
Then Lynch and Bill Clinton met on board her plane in June on the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport tarmac — she was touring police departments, he was campaigning — after the former president insisted on a face-to-face meeting, supposedly just to say hello.
Lynch’s aides, the Times reported, were horrified. “A press aide hurriedly called the Justice Department’s communications director, Melanie Newman, who said to break up the meeting immediately. A staff member rushed to stop it, but by the time the conversation ended, Mr. Clinton had been on the plane for about 20 minutes.”
Most potentially damning, according to the Times, was “a document, which has been described as both a memo and an email,” written by a Democratic operative “who expressed confidence” that “Lynch would keep the Clinton investigation from going too far.”
Whether the operative was speculating or had inside knowledge, Comey was worried Lynch would announce the case was closed, then Russia would leak the document, compromising the investigation.
Comey eventually declared Clinton was “careless,” but not subject to prosecution, largely based on the Justice Department’s decision to charge former Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus with a misdemeanor after he revealed covert agents and classified information to his biographer-lover and lied about it to the FBI.
Grassley also is annoyed with a recent Justice Department legal opinion it’s only obliged to respond to requests for information from committee chairs, ignoring all Democrats.
“Oversight brings transparency, and transparency brings accountability,” Grassley wrote Trump, asking him to rescind the decision. “And, the opposite is true. Shutting down oversight requests doesn’t drain the swamp, Mr. President. It floods the swamp.”
The opinion, Grassley added, “falsely asserts that only requests from committees or their chairs are ‘constitutionally authorized,’” calling that “nonsense.”
He’s also perturbed about getting the cold shoulder from the Justice Department, including 15 letters unanswered in six months, and has threatened to stall the nomination of Stephen Boyd as assistant attorney general for legislative affairs.
“The department has refused to make Mr. Boyd available for even a conversation with the committee’s oversight and investigative staff,” Grassley said. “The department needs to improve its communication with committee members and staff, it needs to be more serious about answering the mail and the questions from Congress.”
Grassley may be 83, but he’s still feisty. His pursuit of interests crossing party boundaries is commendable.