Congressional Republicans have spent months accusing the FBI of withholding key details about how the bureau handled its investigations into Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign. Now the Justice Department appears to be waving the white flag — at least in part.
The specific fight has to do with Republican demands that the FBI turn over 1.2 million documents covering much of the 2016 presidential election season. That’s when the bureau decided not to prosecute Clinton for setting up a personal email system and when it opened an investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.
The FBI and Justice Department have been responding to the requests slowly, ignoring a congressional subpoena while arguing that department needs time for FBI agents to redact classified or sensitive information. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions is giving a bit of ground to his GOP critics, appointing federal prosecutor John Lausch to oversee the delivery of the documents.
The fight is about much more than just the documents. Congressional Republicans are trying to build a case that the Justice Department and FBI are riddled with officials and agents who are biased against President Trump. Anything they can turn up that appears like deliberate mishandling of the Clinton or Trump-Russia investigations could help them accomplish their real goal: discrediting special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump-Russia collusion.
Republicans are pursuing two areas of attack: the way the agency handled the investigation into Clinton’s emails and how the agency got permission to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The Republicans have been trying since December to get the documents, with the FBI assigning 54 agents to review them to protect classified or sensitive information. Republicans say they’ve received only 3,000 documents thus far.
Sessions picked Lausch to supervise the FBI agents and get documents to Congress more quickly. Lausch is a Trump appointee who has been in his current job as the US attorney from the Northern District of Illinois since November.
His appointment comes just two days after President Donald Trump sent a weekend tweet suggesting that the Justice Department was deliberately delaying the documents.
“What does the Department of Justice and FBI have to hide?” Trump tweeted.
Now Trump’s most embattled Cabinet member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appears to be responding.
Republicans want documents tied to Clinton’s emails
The latest escalation comes from a deadline imposed by House Republicans, with two committee chairs issuing a subpoena in March that expired on Thursday. Representatives Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) asked the Justice Department for 1.2 million internal documents tied to a range of agency decisions in 2016, including the conclusion not to prosecute Hillary Clinton for using a private email server for State Department business.
The subpoena followed a December letter requesting the documents.
“Four months have passed since Chairman Gowdy and I … wrote you seeking documents related to our ongoing investigation regarding charging decisions in the investigation surrounding former Secretary Clinton’s private email server in 2016,” Goodlatte wrote to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on March 22.
The Clinton email server has long been an obsession for Gowdy, who spent two years leading an investigation into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that caused the deaths of four Americans. During that investigation, triggered by Republican claims that Clinton had in some way covered up or failed to respond to the attack, Gowdy’s team found out that Clinton used a private email server for her official emails.
Every major probe cleared Clinton of wrongdoing related to the attacks, including Gowdy’s, but the email server became a major campaign theme for the Trump and even spawned the “but her emails” meme.
Clinton set up the server at her home in New York, telling the FBI she did it because of a suggestion from former Secretary of State Colin Powell who had lamented the buggy email system at the agency.
Goodlatte and Gowdy want internal documents from the Justice Department on how the agency made the decision not to charge Clinton with any kind of crime. They’re also trying to get documents tied to the agency’s surveillance of Trump aide Carter Page, a topic that has become a primary concern for Republicans.
The deadline for their March subpoena was April 5, and when the Justice Department didn’t turn over more documents, conservative lawmakers publicly attacked the decision.
“This is unacceptable — it’s time to stop the games,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) tweeted.
Sessions is not giving House Republicans everything they want
Beyond the documents, Republicans have also been calling for Sessions to appoint a second special counsel in addition to Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. While Mueller investigates any ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, a second special counsel would look at the handing of Clinton’s emails and the Page warrant issue.
Sessions told the Justice Department’s internal watchdog in February to investigate the Page warrant and other 2016 issues. On March 29 he added an outside lawyer to help with the investigation.
Sessions named federal prosecutor John Huber to help the internal investigation but expressly rejected the idea of another special counsel in a letter to Congress.
“In high profile circumstances involving other politically sensitive matter, it has been more common to make special arrangements within the department to ensure that actual or apparent conflicts can be avoided,” he wrote.
Monday’s decision to help expedite the documents Goodlatte and Gowdy have requested is unlikely to suddenly change their criticisms of the Justice Department, but it could buy Sessions a little bit of breathing room. He continues to face rumors that Trump is preparing to fire him, although leading Republicans in Congress have warned the White House to leave him alone.
By giving in and appointing a lawyer to help House Republicans get the documents they want from the Justice Department Sessions may be buying himself some good will, and potentially some time.