Hey, who’s up for another special counsel probe? Lindsay Graham, for one, and Chuck Grassley, but it’s not targeting either of the two major party presidential nominees from 2016. Instead, the two Republican Senators have written to the Department of Justice and FBI to request a criminal investigation of former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. They allege that Steele committed — wait for it — obstruction of justice when questioned about his now-infamous dossier:
Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking that they investigate if the former MI6 agent lied to federal authorities.
“I don’t take lightly making a referral for criminal investigation. But, as I would with any credible evidence of a crime unearthed in the course of our investigations, I feel obliged to pass that information along to the Justice Department for appropriate review,” Grassley said in a statement.
Graham added that “after reviewing how Mr. Steele conducted himself in distributing information contained in the dossier and how many stop signs the DOJ ignored in its use of the dossier, I believe that a special counsel needs to review this matter.”
Well, obstruction is the soup du jour in the media, so today’s the perfect day to drop this. Note, however, that the two Judiciary Committee figures were careful to state that they are not necessarily alleging that Steele broke the law, a point which would be beyond their jurisdiction to determine in a legal sense. They are making the referral for a criminal investigation based on their review of Steele’s “inconsistencies” in answering questions from investigators. Just what those “inconsistencies” are is likely explained in the classified attachment sent to Rosenstein and Wray.
The statement notes one curious aspect of this referral. Grassley and Graham specifically state that “the referral does not pertain to the veracity of claims contained in the dossier,” which makes some sense but leaves some questions to be answered. The dossier was not produced under oath, and presumably would never be submitted under oath. Presumably, then, the answers given by Steele to investigators about the claims in the dossier are also not the issue at hand, which means either (a) no one’s disputing the claims made in the dossier, or (b) Steele didn’t stand behind them when pressed. I’m betting on Option B.
So what did trigger the referral? It appears that Grassley and Graham think Steele lied about what he did with the dossier, who he contacted, and what he told the FBI when they were interested in the file as an investigative document. Don’t forget that it’s still an open question as to whether the FBI and DoJ relied on Steele’s dossier to get the FISA warrant that allowed for surveillance on the Trump presidential campaign. What Steele told the FBI in July and August 2016, and then what he told investigators recently, might be very germane to questions of abuse of power.
With all that in mind, why suggest a special counsel? Note that the referral did not get directed to Jeff Sessions, since this is part of the matters from which Sessions has recused himself. But we already have a special counsel looking into Steele and the dossier — so why not just refer it directly to Mueller? This appears to be a not-so-subtle declaration of no confidence in Mueller when it comes to Steele. That makes the referral a political hot potato potent enough to motivate Rosenstein to keep it from being considered in-house while Mueller’s probe continues. Rosenstein would have to appoint another special counsel, which could make things pretty complicated for Mueller and everyone else.
In other words, buckle your seatbelts. We may be in for a bumpy ride. Again.