'They don't give us the information': Lawmakers lose patience, demand DOJ documents

From left, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member, confer before considering a bipartisan bill to protect the special counsel from being fired, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Even as the Justice Department's internal watchdog released its report on the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Republicans on Capitol Hill vented frustration at a department that continues to evade congressional oversight.

For months, Republicans in the House and Senate have demanded the Justice Department turn over documents regarding the FBI's investigations into matters related to both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Lawmakers have issued subpoenas for documents and threatened to hold top Justice Department officials in contempt of Congress.

The Justice Department has produced a large volume of materials, but lawmakers fault top officials for slow responses, unexplained redactions and outright stonewalling.

"What irritates me [is] that they don't give us the information," Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Circa Thursday. "Every time some nominee comes up here for a confirmation, we always ask them will you cooperate with our oversight. and they always say yes and they end up being liars."

After the release of the Clinton report, lawmakers continue to pursue:

  • Documents related to the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to investigate Trump campaign associates.
  • Documents pertaining to an alleged FBI informant with contacts in the Trump campaign.
  • Unredacted communications between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were alleged to have had a political agenda during their work on the Clinton and Trump campaign investigations.
  • Complete information on how the FBI prepares material for Congress, including its policies on redacting information.
  • Full documentation articulating the scope of the Special Counsel's jurisdiction in its investigation of the Russian government and ties to the Trump campaign.

Altogether, subpoenas from House Judiciary and Oversight Committee members amount to more than 1.2 million documents. According to Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the Justice Department and FBI have produced less than 60 percent of those documents.

The tensions between congressional investigators and the Department of Justice are not new. They have been building in recent years, particularly after Republican investigations into the Obama Justice Department were stymied by claims of executive privilege.

Republican lawmakers are issuing increasingly urgent demands, warning they are losing patience with DOJ.

In the latest showdown, House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein setting a Tuesday deadline for the department to turn over documents related to a confidential FBI informant with contacts in the Trump campaign. If Rosenstein failed to turn over the documents for all members of the intelligence committee to review, Nunes warned it would constitute "obstruction of a lawful Congressional investigation."

Nunes and other members of the "Gang of Eight" (party leaders and top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate intelligence committees) were granted access to those documents in two high-level briefings on May 24.

On Thursday, Justice Department officials again met with the Gang of Eight to address follow-up questions about the previous briefings, according to a department spokesperson. It is not clear if DOJ will release the documents requested by Nunes.

In a separate matter, Rep. Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, introduced a resolution giving the Justice Department 14 days to hand over information related to possible FBI and DOJ misconduct in the 2016 election investigations.

Meadows lashed out at Justice Department officials for their "unprecedented obstruction" over the course of eight months. "It's clear [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein has no interest in cooperating, and we are done talking," he warned.

If passed, the resolution would express the sense of the Congress. It would not be binding.

Democrats in the House and Senate have largely condemned these investigations as partisan exercises intended to shield President Donald Trump. On Thursday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut derided the GOP efforts as "part of a concerted and coordinated campaign to undermine the credibility of the special counsel."

Regardless of the political or partisan intention of an investigation, the Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed Congress' broad, almost unlimited authority to obtain information from executive branch agencies, even when it pertains to an open or ongoing investigation.

Congress can get virtually any information it wants, "even if it's highly sensitive intelligence information or dealing with Department of Justice open cases," explained Morton Rosenberg, a former specialist in Congress' oversight and investigative authorities at the Congressional Research Service.

A committee only has to show that the information they're requesting is within the scope of its jurisdiction and that it is pertinent to that area of concern.

Having the right to the information and actually obtaining it are quite different.

"Contempt and those remedies are still on the table," Rep. Jordan told Fox News on Wednesday. The congressman added that the impeachment of top officials at DOJ "is something we still have in our toolbox."

Jordan was among the group of Republicans who threatened to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein for failing to produce documents and obstructing a congressional investigation. In response to the threat, Rosenstein responded publicly that he would "not be extorted."

Senate Republicans are also warning of a possible showdown between the legislative and executive branch.

"The only showdown you could have is by the issuing of a contempt citation," Sen. Grassley said. For that to happen, Grassley would have to secure a vote in his committee. "It makes it more difficult, but I intend to keep vigorously pursuing it," he said.

Chairman of the Senate oversite committee, Ron Johnson, R-Wis., warned "at some point in time" there may be a serious clash between the institutions, but hopes it doesn't come to that.

In the meantime, he said he will continue his pursuit of documents explaining how DOJ determines which information to redact when providing documents to Congress.

"I'm not going to stop until I get the answers to the public's questions and until the credibility of the FBI and DOJ are restored," he told Circa. "And that's not going to happen unless we actually understand what has been pulled off."

Last week Johnson sent a letter to FBI Director Christsopher Wray raising concerns about redactions made to correspondences between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, FBI agents associated with both the Clinton and Trump campaign investigations. The two have become the focus of lawmakers who believe their text messages suggest the FBI's investigations of Clinton and Trump may have been tainted by political bias.

According to the inspector general's report on the Clinton investigation, there were problematic political discussions among FBI personnel but the investigators "found no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations."

The relationship between congressional investigators and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been one of the most contentious. The FBI and DOJ have often refused congressional requests, citing national security concerns, or claiming the information would jeopardize an informant or reveal the government's strategy in a pending criminal investigation.

Congress technically has the resources to compel the information through contempt citations, hearings and possible criminal prosecution. Lawmakers have so far been reluctant to pursue those remedies under the current Republican administration which is largely supportive of their efforts to obtain information.


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