Fractious House panel at center of latest Trump probes
By Stephen Braun and Chad Day
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The oversight committee chosen by House Speaker Paul Ryan to investigate whether President Donald Trump obstructed an FBI probe has been the most publicly aggressive group involved in the cautious, GOP-led investigations.
But the fate of its investigation hinges on Ryan’s lukewarm support and the sometimes fractious working relationship between its Republican and Democratic leaders.
Ryan said Wednesday the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will take the lead scrutinizing reports that Trump pressed FBI Director James Comey to shut down the bureau’s investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Hours after Ryan’s announcement, the committee’s chairman, Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, tweeted that he has already scheduled a public hearing for next week into the matter and will ask Comey to testify.
Chaffetz’s move came a day after he wrote the FBI demanding memos and notes that Comey reportedly compiled after several meetings and phone calls with Trump. “If this memo exists, I need to see it right away,” Chaffetz told The Associated Press in a phone interview, adding, “If we need a subpoena, we’ll do it.”
But Chaffetz’s threat to subpoena the records was too faint for his Democratic counterpart. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., tore into Ryan and Chaffetz, urging an immediate subpoena for White House records involving Flynn and a quick public hearing featuring Comey. Cummings said “we have been waiting for months for the chairman to pick up his so-called subpoena pen.”
Both lawmakers applauded the choice of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a new special counsel to lead the Justice Department’s investigation into allegations of collusion between Trump associates and Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.
“Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted,” Chaffetz tweeted.
Cummings said Mueller was a “solid choice” and urged Mueller “to follow the facts wherever they may lead, with integrity and independence.”
Even without resorting to the force of a congressional subpoena, the committee already has turned up key documents and prodded federal agencies into action in the months since Cummings first asked incoming Vice President Mike Pence for information about Flynn’s possible conflicts of interest last November, soon after Trump won the presidential election.
A series of toughly-worded letters from Chaffetz and Cummings uncovered information in March that Flynn was paid more than $33,000 from RT, the Russian television network branded a propaganda outlet by U.S. intelligence agencies. And in April, the committee’s scrutiny of Flynn’s contacts with government agencies about those payments prompted an inquiry by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
Chaffetz and Cummings appeared together in April to announce that they believed Flynn likely broke a federal law by failing to obtain U.S. government approval to accept foreign payments and failing to disclose them afterward.
The committee’s new emphasis comes as Chaffetz’s political profile may be waning. Chaffetz has said he will not run for re-election and there is uncertainty whether he will finish his term, leading to questions about how effective he will remain as chairman.
Chaffetz rose to national prominence as one of the public faces of GOP efforts to investigate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s activities in advance of the 2016 election. Chaffetz was among Republican congressmen assigned to the Benghazi select committee investigating the deaths of four Americans during a 2012 terrorist attack in Libya. And he directed a House oversight inquiry into Clinton’s email practices and use of a private computer server.
Cummings questioned why Chaffetz wasn’t pressing the Trump administration with the same zeal that he showed during the Clinton investigations. Chaffetz had Comey in front of the oversight committee within 48 hours of his announcement that Clinton wouldn’t face criminal charges, Cummings said. “Why is he not doing the same here?” he asked.
Democrats are also questioning whether Ryan will give Chaffetz the independence to pursue the committee’s inquiries as far as they need to go.
“Speaker Ryan has shown he has zero, zero, zero appetite for any investigation of President Trump. Instead, he appears to have minimized any oversight whatsoever,” Cummings said.
Ryan said he supports the House committee’s request for the Comey memos. He took a more cautious tone about Democratic party calls for broader investigations of the Trump administration.
“There’s clearly a lot of politics being played,” Ryan said.
Chaffetz’s letter to the FBI requested that the bureau turn over all documents and recordings detailing communications between Comey and Trump. The letter to acting FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe gave the FBI one week to produce the records. McCabe has replaced Comey, who was fired last week by Trump. Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee also asked the FBI to turn over memos relating to Comey’s interactions with his superiors in both the Trump and Obama administrations.
The requests to the FBI went out as 33 congressional Democrats sent their own message to Chaffetz and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte. Castigating them for a “lack of action,” the Democrats demanded Comey’s memos, an immediate public hearing with the former FBI director and a vote on a motion to subpoena the White House to produce documents related Flynn.
Chaffetz said he has always had strong support from congressional leaders. He said he could unilaterally issue a subpoena, but he prefers that the FBI turn over the records voluntarily.
Even without an immediate subpoena, Cummings said he was “encouraged that the chairman sent a letter last night asking for the Comey memos. But we need much more than that.”