House Republicans grill FBI, Justice leaders on Russia probe
WASHINGTON (AP) – Republicans accused top federal law enforcement officials Thursday of withholding important documents from them and demanded details about surveillance tactics during the Russia investigation in a contentious congressional hearing that capped days of mounting partisan complaints.
Underscoring their frustration, Republicans briefly put the hearing on hold so they could approve a resolution on the House floor demanding that the Justice Department turn over thousands of documents by next week.
The House Judiciary Committee hearing marked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's first appearance before Congress since an internal DOJ report criticizing the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation revealed new disparaging text messages among FBI officials about Donald Trump during the 2016 election. FBI Director Christopher Wray also appeared before Congress on Thursday.
Republicans on the panel seized on the watchdog report to allege bias by the FBI and to discredit an investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign that is now led by special counsel Robert Mueller. They suggested that the Justice Department had conspired against Trump by refusing to produce documents they believe would show improper FBI conduct.
"This country is being hurt by it. We are being divided," Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, said of Mueller's investigation. Gowdy led a separate two-year investigation into the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and Clinton's role in those attacks as secretary of state.
"Whatever you got," Gowdy added, "finish it the hell up because this country is being torn apart."
Rosenstein, at times raising his voice and pointing his finger, strongly defended himself and the department during the hourslong hearing, saying he was doing his best to balance congressional oversight with the need to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations. He said despite Republican allegations, he was "not trying to hide anything."
"We are not in contempt of this Congress, and we are not going to be in contempt of this Congress," he said.
The hearing came amid Republican attacks on the Justice Department and allegations of FBI bias against Trump. On Wednesday, lawmakers spent 11 hours behind closed doors grilling Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who worked on both the Clinton and Russia investigations and traded anti-Trump text messages with an FBI lawyer. The inspector general criticized the officials for creating an appearance of impropriety but did not find evidence that bias had tainted the decisions of prosecutors in the Clinton investigation.
Strzok is expected to return to the committee early next month for an open hearing. The FBI lawyer he texted with, Lisa Page, is also expected to talk to lawmakers.
The resolution that passed along party lines Thursday demanded that the department turn over by July 6 documents on FBI investigations into Clinton's private email use and Trump campaign ties to Russia. Both investigations unfolded during the presidential election, causing the FBI — which prides itself on independence — to become entangled in presidential politics in ways that are continuing to shake out.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., one of the sponsors of the resolution, did not deny Democratic assertions that the document requests were related to efforts to undercut Mueller's probe.
"Yes, when we get these documents, we believe that it will do away with this whole fiasco of what they call the Russian Trump collusion because there wasn't any," he said on the House floor.
The House judiciary and intelligence panels, which have subpoenaed the documents, want to use the records as part of congressional investigations into the FBI's decision to clear Clinton in the email probe and its opening of an investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The Justice Department has already turned over more than 800,000 documents to congressional committees, but the subpoenas are asking for additional materials, including records about any surveillance of Trump campaign associates. Lawmakers have threatened to hold top DOJ officials in contempt or vote to impeach them if the documents aren't turned over.
On the floor, lawmakers hurled insults as Republicans said Congress is entitled to whatever it wants.
"We have a petulant Department of Justice defended by a petulant Democratic Party," said Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Va.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., shot back: "We're caught up in this nonsense because they can't get over Hillary Clinton's emails. Get over it!"
Wray and Rosenstein said law enforcement officials have been working diligently to provide the records, though Republicans made clear their dissatisfaction at the pace.
"We have caught you hiding information from Congress," Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said at the hearing, an accusation Rosenstein strongly denied.
"I am the deputy attorney general of the United States, OK?" he said. "I'm not the person doing the redacting. I am responsible for responding to your concerns, as I have.
"Whenever you have brought issues to my attention, I have taken appropriate steps to remedy them," he added.
He also dismissed media reports that he had threatened to subpoena staff members of the House Intelligence Committee, saying to laughter, "There's no way to subpoena phone calls."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., signaled the hearing's tone in his opening remarks when he complained about the Justice Department's failure to produce all the requested documents.
"The Department of Justice and the FBI are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The president and Congress are," Goodlatte said.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., demanded to know why Rosenstein had not recused himself from overseeing Mueller's investigation into whether Trump had obstructed justice given Rosenstein's role in laying the groundwork for the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Rosenstein's memo criticizing Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation was initially cited by the White House as justification for his firing.
"I can assure you that if it were appropriate for me to recuse, I'd be more than happy to do so and let somebody else handle this," Rosenstein said.