Up to now, Donald Trump has slammed Democrats for stalling the Senate on confirmations for his political appointees. He may need to add Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to his list — or perhaps pat him on the back. The Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee made a hardball play yesterday with FBI director James Comey and the Department of Justice, after weeks of frustration over the status of rumored probes of the previous election:
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley said Tuesday he will hold up the deputy attorney general’s confirmation vote as collateral until FBI Director James B. Comey briefs his panel about investigations into alleged ties between the Trump administration and Russian officials.
“I’m not going to schedule a hearing on the deputy attorney general until we get a briefing from Comey,” Grassley (R-Iowa) said Tuesday, even though, as he noted, “the Justice Department would like to get their deputy out of committee just as soon as they can.”
It’s been a month since Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) requested a briefing on all of the election-related probes at the FBI. Grassley says he’ll take a closed-door or public briefing, whichever Comey and the DoJ believe is appropriate, as long as the committee gets a briefing. So far, though, all Comey has said in response is that he’s still waiting to hear whether he’s cleared to release any information, which is not much of an answer.
This does have a Catch-22 quality to it, however. The nomination that Grassley has put under deep freeze is that of Rod Rosenstein, nominated for deputy Attorney General — a very important post under normal conditions, and more important now because of the issues under investigation with Russia and the election. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already committed to recusing himself on all matters relating to potential investigations of those matters, presumably including what to clear for Comey to discuss. The man who will make those decisions is … Rod Rosenstein, once he’s confirmed. Right now acting deputy AG Dana Boente is presumably making those decisions, but that’s a tough call for a temporary executive to make. It’s not difficult to imagine that the question of clearance is getting bounced around the careerists at DoJ, all of whom might worry about their own prospects if the “wrong” choice gets made.
Normally, one wouldn’t expect to see this kind of a power play from a Senate under control of the same party as the White House. Depending on circumstances, however, Grassley might be doing Trump a favor. If there’s really nothing to the allegations of collusion — and media reports have never produced anything that suggests otherwise — then having the FBI director tell that to the Judiciary Committee would be very helpful to the White House.
At least one Democrat thinks the answer will come today. CNN’s Manu Raju told Anderson Cooper that Sheldon Whitehouse got a promise from Comey that he would confirm by today whether any investigation exists, and what the FBI intends to pursue (via Matt Vespa):
— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) March 15, 2017
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said Tuesday that FBI Director James Comey promised to tell him Wednesday whether the FBI is investigating ties between Russia and the campaign of President Donald Trump.
The Rhode Island Democrat said that Comey made the promise in a March 2 meeting with him and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina.
According to Whitehouse, Comey assured them he would confirm if an investigation exists “and the scope of their Russia/Trump investigation because he had not been able to at that point say that there was one.”
Democrats had better not be expecting another Fitzmas. Lindsey Graham says he’ll make today’s hearing on other Russian activities “tough” on Comey if they don’t get an answer before it begins, but maybe Republicans shouldn’t hold their breath on that either.
Update: Looks like Grassley got what he wanted:
“I’ve been told that I’ll have a briefing this afternoon,” Grassley told reporters when asked about reports that Comey was expected to clarify any investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia by Wednesday.
Grassley added that he hadn’t heard about the Wednesday deadline.
Asked if she was getting a briefing with Grassley on Russia later Wednesday, Feinstein—the committee’s top Democrat—told reporters “yeah, we’re supposed to get a briefing.”
Today’s briefing to the Judiciary leadership will be behind closed doors, but Comey will testify publicly on Monday to the House Intelligence Committee. Mark your calendars, and bring the popcorn.