As Wilford Brimley once said, Wonderful thing, subpoenaes … usually. Two executives of the oppo-research firm Fusion GPS refused to answer any questions posed by the House Intelligence Committee on the source of funds for the notorious (and debunked) “dossier” on Donald Trump which helped fuel the Russia-collusion probe. The two witnesses claimed that divulging their client information would destroy their business model, and invoked their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination:
Two partners at the intelligence firm that produced the dossier of memos alleging Russian efforts to aid Donald Trump’s presidential campaign on Wednesday declined to answer questions before the House intelligence committee.
Fusion GPS’ Peter Fritsch and Thomas Catán invoked their Fifth Amendment rights not to answer questions during their closed-door appearance before the committee, according to their attorney Joshua Levy.
After the session, which lasted more than an hour, Levy charged that the committee broke with its past practices by requiring them to physically appear to plead the Fifth.
“No American should have to experience the indignity that occurred today,” Levy told reporters. “No American should be required to appear before a congressional committee just to invoke his constitutional privileges. But that is what Chairman (Devin) Nunes required of our clients at Fusion GPS today, in a sharp departure from even the past practice of this committee’s investigation, where witnesses under the exact same circumstances were excused from appearing.”
Politico notes that Nunes wasn’t actually the driving force behind the subpoenas. Nunes recused himself from the Russia-influence probe months ago, but the committee still needs his signature on the subpoenas:
Nunes’ Republican allies on the committee say the subpoenas weren’t issued unilaterally by the chairman. In fact, according to a person familiar with the Fusion subpoena, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who has helmed the committee’s Russia probe since Nunes stepped aside in April, requested in writing to Nunes that the subpoenas be issued. Nunes — who must sign off on all subpoenas as chairman — affirmed his request, the person said.
Fox’s report included an anonymous Capitol Hill source that slammed committee Democrats for running interference for Fusion GPS, and for thwarting Congressional attempts to investigate the matter:
A source close to the matter told Fox News that Democratic staffers in the hearing were aggressive and ran interference to protect Fusion GPS, often interrupting questions by Republican members on the committee. …
A congressional official familiar with the matter fired back, saying in a statement to Fox News:
“Democrats and Fusion GPS have tried to obstruct every effort to get the facts about the compilation of the Steele dossier and who paid for it, so it’s no surprise that Fusion GPS is saying they’ll continue to obstruct these efforts. Fusion GPS is clearly paving the way to plead the fifth, and Congress is trying to find out if they’re trying to hide something.”
That prompts a question of journalistic form: Is it customary to accept “statements” from anonymous sources? It’s sometimes necessary — although hardly as often as employed — to use anonymous sources to get critical information about important developments. This quote isn’t an important development; it’s a partisan attack, accurate or not. That kind of statement should have a name attached to it, or should not get published at all.
Besides, CNN got Rep. Tom Rooney on the record with a better argument:
“We didn’t require them to come in and plead the Fifth. We asked them to come in to answer questions with regard to our investigation, as we have with numerous, numerous witnesses over the last several months,” Rooney said after the session concluded.
“The fact that they did plead the Fifth obviously is their right, but I think it is important that we hear from them directly, especially with regard to their extremely lengthy response to our request and in part, partially, because their response was that the investigation and subpoena was illegitimate. I think by the very fact that they were here shows its legitimacy and I think that’s important,” Rooney added.
Congress actually has the greatest legitimacy in this investigation, given its role as a check on the executive’s use of power and oversight over agencies such as the Department of Justice. Its subpoenas should carry at least equal weight, and should be taken seriously. Clearly the committee wanted to send that message by forcing Fusion GPS to testify in their investigation into Russian interference, for which the House Intelligence Committee is uniquely situated.
So why plead the Fifth? That’s pretty curious, as no serious allegations of lawbreaking has emerged in relation to Fusion GPS. They may want to protect their client list, but they don’t have a right to protect it when there is a legitimate investigation under way. Fusion GPS isn’t a media outlet, and their clients aren’t anonymous sources requiring protection.
There is a fine line here regarding political speech, however, and the use of a Congressional majority to potentially intrude on it. A need exists to protect it from the power of government to intimidate people into silence, whether that intimidation comes from the executive or legislative branch. But Fusion GPS is not a political party or activist group either; it’s a commercial entity that digs up dirt on behalf of political parties and candidates.
If the House Intelligence Committee wants to play hardball, they could compel that testimony with a grant of immunity. That would void the invocation of the Fifth and open up these witnesses to prosecution for contempt of Congress if they don’t cooperate. One has to wonder, though, whether any of this is worth that much effort. That’s the kind of tactic one uses for people who have testimony worth the trade in terms of a conviction in court, and not just for an intelligence review.