How did the FBI begin its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election? Until yesterday, members of Congress investigating the investigation had only seen a heavily redacted version of an internal bureau memo justifying the probe. House Intelligence chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) had demanded access to the full memo for months, issuing subpoenas that the Department of Justice had ignored. Finally, Nunes and Trey Gowdy met with Rod Rosenstein to read the entire memo — after Nunes suggested on Tuesday that he might begin impeachment action to remove the deputy AG as well as current FBI Director Christopher Wray:
Facing legal action, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein allowed House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to view the FBI memo that instigated the bureau’s counterintelligence investigation of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, Nunes confirmed on Wednesday.
The meeting came a day after Nunes threatened to take legal action — including contempt proceedings and impeachment — against Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray for failing to produce a clean copy of the memo, known as an electronic communication or EC, that was responsive to an August 2017 committee subpoena.
What did they find? Enough to get a thank you from Nunes at the end of the meeting. The DoJ provided access to 1,000 more pages of classified material that had been withheld until now, which may leave more questions than answers. The Intel committee has been subpoenaing these documents since August of last year, and they have a constitutional duty to oversee the operations of intelligence agencies like the FBI. Why did the DoJ drag its heels for this long, and how many other documents remain unseen that might have some bearing on congressional probes?
This is no mere technicality. The FBI sought a FISA warrant to surveil someone connected to a presidential campaign. If that turns out to have been requested improperly and/or under false or misleading pretenses, it would make the nation’s top law enforcement agency look politically compromised. That falls squarely under Congress’ authority to investigate, constitutionally much more so than a special counsel operating under the same DoJ authority as the FBI itself. Stonewalling this oversight certainly rises to the level of a contempt charge, and eventually a congressional removal through impeachment of executive-branch officials that refuse to cooperate with such oversight.
However, Nunes might have been bluffing on Tuesday. The Washington Post reports that the threat surprised even his own colleagues:
“It is certainly on the path to impeachment,” Meadows said, noting that GOP leaders had not ruled out potentially filing impeachment papers for Rosenstein if he failed to produce the materials.
He added: “They’ve had more than enough time, so let me just tell you: They’re past due.”
But the move toward impeachment surprised other Republican members, who wondered on what grounds either could be brought up on such charges.
“There has to be a high crime or misdemeanor, I would assume, to offer articles of impeachment. I don’t know what those would be at this point,” said Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), a senior member of the intelligence panel.
If it was a bluff, it worked. At least for now. Will this change the direction of the committee’s investigation? We don’t know that yet, but the reluctance of the DoJ to allow access to the memo at least suggests that it might.