Republicans are wary of Sen. Chuck Grassley‘s (R-Iowa) decision to launch a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
Grassley, the panel’s chairman, took the step this week partly at the urging of Democrats, but said that it’s his committee’s job to make sure there’s a firewall protecting the FBI from political influence.
“There should be no improper interference with FBI investigations to favor any elected official or candidate of either party,” Grassley wrote in a Wednesday letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Grassley’s announcement took his Republican colleagues by surprise, and several said they are uncomfortable with the addition of yet another investigation that could target the Trump administration.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that he did not think it necessary for the Judiciary Committee to investigate Comey’s firing. Still, he said the investigation was Grassley’s choice to make as chairman.
“I’m sure it’s being pushed rather hard by Democrats because I don’t know one Republican pushing that,” Hatch said of an investigation into Comey’s firing. “It’s not that they don’t want to have an investigation, they don’t see a need for it.”
Several GOP lawmakers on Thursday told The Hill that Grassley’s investigation could conflict with the work of special counsel Robert Mueller at the Justice Department.
“We already have a special counsel. I don’t think we should have any more investigations. I don’t see how that doesn’t fall within his purview. That should all be left to the special counsel,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment candidly.
A second Republican senator said Grassley jumping in “isn’t particularly helpful, but at this point I don’t know what you can do about it.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) warned said Judiciary should be careful not to interfere with Mueller’s work.
“I’ve heard Sen. Feinstein say we ought to have a hearing on obstruction of justice. That is in my view within the exclusive purview of the special counsel,” Cornyn said.
A spokesperson for Grassley said the Judiciary Committee has a responsibility under the Constitution and Senate rules to consider the nomination for Comey’s successor as FBI director.
“The committee cannot do its duty responsibly without examining allegations of improper political influence,” said Taylor Foy. “This is crucial to maintain the American people’s trust in these institutions.”
Foy noted the Senate Intelligence Committee does not oversee the prosecutorial function of the Justice Department.
In the letter to Feinstein, Grassley said he found Comey’s testimony last week about the growing influence of political considerations among the Department of Justice’s senior leadership “extremely troubling.”
Comey testified last month that he worried that Department of Justice leaders “could not credibly complete the investigation” last year into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information.
One thing that made Comey suspicious was the insistence of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who served under President Barack Obama, that the Clinton investigation be referred to strictly as a “matter.” The language dovetailed with talking points Clinton’s presidential campaign used to insist that the Democratic nominee was not under investigation.
But Grassley’s investigation could backfire, Republicans fear, if it begins to zero in on the question of whether Trump or senior officials in his administration acted improperly with regards to Comey’s firing and the broader Russia investigation at the FBI.
While some Senate Republicans think it’s worth reviewing whether Lynch sought to influence the FBI’s Clinton investigation or soften its impact, several wonder whether it’s worth the price of also investigating Comey’s firing.
A third Republican senator said “if it’s opening up old Clinton stuff, the base loves it,” but warned that there’s a risk of the probe metastasizing into something that could embarrass the president.
The lawmaker added the decision to investigate Comey’s dismissal could be “awful” politically.
For months, Senate Republican leaders had argued that it was best for one committee to focus on Russia-related inquiries so that the brewing controversy doesn’t crowd out the legislative agenda.
“It makes sense of one committee to take the lead. That’s not to denigrate the jurisdiction of other committees, but we’ve got a lot of work to do, and if you have a lot of committees basically doing duplicative things, it doesn’t strike me as an efficient way to get our work done,” Cornyn said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had sought to keep all of the Russia investigation under the purview of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is headed by one of his closest allies, Sen. Richard Burr(R-N.C.).
In December, McConnell said the Intelligence panel should take the lead on Russia and is “more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter.”
McConnell expressed concern last month that creating new investigations could “only serve to impede the current work being done” to understand how Russia tried to interfere in the election and prepare countermeasures to prevent future meddling.
A senior Senate GOP aide said that McConnell was referring to talk of creating a congressional super committee or special counsel on Russia. The aide was not aware of McConnell commenting on a potential Judiciary Committee investigation.
Despite their misgiving, Grassley’s investigation could yield political dividends for Republicans if it uncovers efforts by Lynch to influence the Clinton probe, which was investigating whether Clinton had mishandled classified information while secretary of State through her use of a private email server.
The White House has seized on Comey’s interactions with Lynch, saying it’s the real scandal that lawmakers should be looking into.
“A.G. Lynch made law enforcement decisions for political purposes…gave Hillary Clinton a free pass and protection. Totally illegal!” Trump tweeted this week.
While Cornyn said questions of whether the Trump administration obstructed justice should be left to the special counsel, he stressed that it is within the Judiciary panel’s jurisdiction to look at Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case.
Democrats, however, want to go beyond that.
Feinstein on Thursday said the Judiciary Committee review should look at the question of whether Trump administration officials obstructed justice.
“I think that’s going to be a part of it. First I think it’s important that we have Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions before us. This is our oversight responsibility,” she told reporters.
That could put the attorney general in the panel’s crosshairs.
Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that FBI leaders knew that Sessions would likely have to recuse himself from overseeing their work on the Russia probe.
“We were also aware of facts I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued involvement in a Russian investigation problematic,” Comey testified, referring to Sessions.
The attorney general ripped the remark as “innuendo” during testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee this week.