The Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism is a little-known panel that doesn’t normally have an interest in Russia. But it is chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Republicans who are most determined to get to the bottom of Russia’s hacking and involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Call it the little subcommittee that could because in the midst of numerous investigations on Capitol Hill into Russian interference in the U.S. elections, Graham’s committee, with few resources, has pulled more than its share of its weight.
Through sheer will, Graham and his subcommittee’s Democratic leader, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, have managed to maneuver their subcommittee to the center of the Russia-Trump investigations.
One week ago, Graham and Whitehouse demanded that the FBI tell them whether there’s a criminal investigation underway on the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia, and whether the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower as Trump claims.
"Only thing you can be assured of is that if they don't answer my [questions], I think the committee as a whole will subpoena the documents, and I will stay on them to disclose to us whether there's a criminal investigation because Congress should not be in the dark on this," Graham told The Daily Beast Wednesday morning. “I want to know if there's a criminal investigation by [today], simply because I don't think Congress should blunder into this stuff and wander into an investigation.”
Hours later, the FBI informed him that he would be receiving a classified briefing to give him answer. Graham and Whitehouse will press to make the answers unclassified.
Graham proudly announced this in a small, crowded room, tucked away in the Dirksen Senate Office Building during his subcommittee’s first open hearing on Russia. The room was packed to the gills with an audience usually unseen for small panels.
As the subcommittee heard from expert witnesses about Russia’s efforts to disrupt democracies and undermine NATO and the European Union, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee quietly slipped out of the room—he and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein were to meet Comey shortly to discuss Russia.
It’s unclear whether the subcommittee’s investigation has the means to give its probe real teeth. Like most subcommittees, it relies on the staff of the broader committee to conduct its work and lack the funding and staffing that committees like the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which are both conducting Russia investigations. Offices for members of the subcommittee declined to answer how many staff have been dedicated to this effort.
"We've got enough people to do what we're doing now. [If] you want to ramp up later—before we ramp up, I want to know if there's a criminal investigation underway, because I want to honor that and stay out its way,” Graham said in response to a question from The Daily Beast.
But as Graham’s victory Wednesday showed, the subpoena -- and even the threat of it -- holds real power.
All of Capitol Hill’s Senate investigations have been roiled by Trump’s allegation of wiretapping 11 days ago.
"The current president says he believes that the former president… through the government, surveilled his campaign in 2016,” Graham said. “I have no evidence of that, but I can tell you this: that question needs to be answered… a lot of Americans are wondering what's going on here.”
"We are entitled to investigate, under the Constitution,” Whitehouse added.
Republicans are beginning to lean towards the notion that the president simply spread an untruth, and that there’s no evidence that the Obama administration took part in any wiretapping of Trump Tower during the elections.
"We don't have any evidence that that took place. I don't believe, just in the last week of time, I don't believe there was an actual tap of Trump Tower," House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, an ally of the president, said Wednesday morning. “Are you going to take the tweets literally? If you are, then clearly the president was wrong.”
Nunes’ committee will soon be making waves, with open hearings featuring top officials on March 20 and 28. The Senate’s intelligence committee is also expected to hold open hearings in coming weeks.