A conflict between the FBI, Department of Justice, and the House Intelligence Committee over the debunked “dossier” involving Donald Trump has broken into the open. Two weeks ago, following the testimony of Fusion GPS chief Glenn Simpson to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel subpoenaed records from the two agencies about their involvement with the source, a former British espionage agent. After the deadline for the documents passed on Friday, the Intel Committee decided to subpoena Jeff Sessions and Christopher Wray to find out why.
That’s a pretty good question:
In the most significant escalation yet in the wrangling between Congress and the FBI over the Trump dossier, the House Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed the bureau and the Justice Department for documents relating to the dossier, the FBI’s relationship with dossier author Christopher Steele, and the bureau’s possible role in supporting what began as an opposition research project against candidate Donald Trump in the final months of last year’s presidential campaign. …
The committee issued the subpoenas — one to the FBI, an identical one to the Justice Department — on August 24, giving both until last Friday, September 1, to turn over the information.
Neither FBI nor Justice turned over the documents, and now the committee has given them an extension until September 14 to comply.
Illustrating the seriousness with which investigators view the situation, late Tuesday the committee issued two more subpoenas, specifically to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directing them to appear before the committee to explain why they have not provided the subpoenaed information.
So far, the excuse has been that production of such records might interfere with Robert Mueller’s independent counsel investigation. That’s a matter between Congress and the IC office, though. Congress can issue valid subpoenas, especially in its constitutional role of oversight over the executive branch, and those agencies have a requirement to comply or ask a court to intervene. They can’t simply stiff-arm Congress without these committees taking action, such as contempt citations, to force compliance. (Of course, the DoJ would have to prosecute those, too, so …)
Furthermore, the House and Senate panels with skin in this game already have ongoing coordination with Mueller’s team, and claim that Mueller isn’t worried about Congressional scrutiny on this point. Simpson’s testimony two weeks ago seemed to indicate that, too. As Trey Gowdy explains, the reason for this scrutiny falls directly in that oversight paradigm:
They are particularly interested to know whether the FBI or Justice Department ever presented information from the dossier — unverified, possibly from paid informants — to a court as a basis for obtaining a surveillance warrant in the Russia investigation.
“I want to know the extent to which it was relied upon, if at all, by any of our intelligence agencies or federal law enforcement agencies,” Gowdy said, “and to the extent it was relied upon, how did they vet, or either corroborate or contradict, the information in it?”
The FBI also reportedly considered fronting Steele thousands of dollars in order for him to develop the dossier more fully, a charge that the FBI has thus far refused to officially address. Those practices would definitely come under the purview of both the House Intel and Senate Judiciary committees.
John Hinderaker argues that Gowdy’s suggestion would be an even larger scandal than Watergate:
We still don’t know whether the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign during the election, although the number of “unmasking” requests from Obama operatives certainly suggests that such spying went on. If the Obama administration obtained warrants by presenting faked information from Russian sources that was solicited or paid for by the FBI, we have another major scandal, far eclipsing minor matters like Watergate. But Obama’s bureaucrats are, it appears, more determined to hide the truth than Congressional investigators are to uncover it.
Watergate was a much broader scandal than most people recall now, but this would be in the same category of abuse-of-power scandal, assuming that’s what happened. That’s also a legitimate area of oversight for Congress, which has much more standing to conduct such probes than does Robert Mueller anyway.
Sessions and Wray need to explain why this information did not get provided to the Intel committee, but let’s remember that Sessions has every incentive to cooperate in such a probe. It’s curious, then, that Sessions’ DoJ is dragging its feet on this when the presumed answers would tend to shift the scandal to the previous administration. Perhaps the answers here might not be what people expect.