Exclusive: Senate ‘Russia Probe’ Is Not Investigating Russia
The Judiciary Committee may be issuing press releases about its ‘Russia Probe.’ But staffers say there’s no full-blown investigation, just routine oversight of the FBI.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has demanded documents on Russian meddling from the CIA, interviewed Donald Trump Jr. about his infamous Trump Tower meeting, and subpoenaed Paul Manafort, the president’s Kremlin-friendly former campaign chairman.
In May, the committee held a subcommittee hearing called “Russian Interference in 2016 United States Election.” In June, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley issued a pair of press releases about his “Russia Probe.” One of them, produced with fellow committee Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, asked for documents from the FBI, citing the committee’s “investigations into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
But the Judiciary Committee is not, in fact, running a Trump-Russia investigation—at least, not a full-fledged one.
A staffer for Grassley, speaking on the condition of anonymity to give his candid assessment, told The Daily Beast that the committee is instead engaged in routine oversight of the Justice Department—though under extraordinary circumstances.
Grassley’s role in the congressional probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has perplexed and concerned members of his own party, Republican staffers on the committee told The Daily Beast.
The probe appears to have already missed one of its own deadlines. And rather than publicly needling potential Russian meddlers, Grassley has primarily used his bully pulpit to rip an opposition-research firm and the FBI.
Nearly a year after Election Day, a host of investigators are working on probes specifically digging into how Russia meddled in the presidential election, who—if anyone—they colluded with in the U.S., and what they are still doing now. The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating, the House Intelligence Committee is investigating, and the Justice Department is investigating too, through special counsel Bob Mueller.
But Grassley’s committee is not part of that. The Grassley staffer told The Daily Beast that the Judiciary Committee’s investigators are focused on the FBI.
“The American people need to be able to trust that the FBI and Justice Department are operating free from political influence,” the staffer said. “That’s what this investigation is about, and we will follow the facts wherever they lead.”
“The Judiciary Committee is not running a comprehensive Trump/Russia investigation,” the staffer added. “Intel matters are the purview of the Intelligence Committees. The Judiciary Committee is engaged in the DOJ oversight for which it’s responsible and related issues that intersect with the Russian meddling in our democratic system.”
The staffer also said Grassley’s team is not trying to determine whether anyone broke the law.
“The Judiciary Committee does not have a prosecutorial function and does not conduct criminal investigations,” the staffer said, adding that committee investigators will share any evidence of crimes they find with law enforcement.
Whatever its mission, the committee’s investigation seems to be running behind its own stated schedule. On July 25, Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein told Fox News that Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. would both “hopefully” appear before the committee in September for a public hearing.
Notably, committee members questioned Donald Trump Jr. on Sept. 7 behind closed doors. Ten days later, Feinstein told CNN she and Grassley planned to bring the president’s son back for a public hearing.
“I think it’s Senator [Chuck] Grassley’s intent, and it’s certainly my intent, to have him before the committee in the open and be able to ask some questions under oath,” she said.
That hearing is nowhere on the horizon, though Grassley told CNN on Thursday that he thinks “there’s no way of avoiding it.” His committee has yet to question Manafort. As chairman, Grassley is responsible for sending out subpoenas to witnesses and scheduling public hearings.
Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairs, recently boasted that their staff has conducted more than 250 hours of interviews, gathered upward of 100,000 pages of documents, and held 11 open hearings about their probe.
Meanwhile, a Democratic Senate aide told The Daily Beast one of the Judiciary Committee’s main focuses is the question of whether President Trump or his aides engaged in obstruction of justice, including his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
That runs counter to the Grassley staffer’s description of the probe, as an effort primarily focused on whether the FBI was properly doing its job.
In a letter on Aug. 30, Grassley and fellow committee member Graham asked new FBI Director Chris Wray to turn over documents about Comey’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails. That letter cited the committee’s investigation of Comey’s firing as the reason for their interest.
And on Sept. 20, Grassley sent another letter to Wray that had the effect of blaming the FBI for the president’s current troubles. In it, Grassley asked Wray if the FBI ever warned Trump about Russian efforts to influence his campaign “so that he could take defensive action to prevent the campaign from being infiltrated.” Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, did not sign the letter.
Besides suggesting that the FBI could be responsible for the Trump/Russia troubles, Grassley has also dedicated significant resources into investigating Fusion GPS, an opposition-research firm that compiled the so-called Steele dossier. That document alleged, among other things, that the president has been blackmailed by Russian intelligence.
Grassley’s effort has drawn sly skepticism from at least one of his Republican Senate colleagues.
“I’m not sure that I understand exactly what they’re trying to do,” Burr told Bloomberg News in August. “They tried to subpoena Paul Manafort; we interviewed him.”
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman