The group was born out of frustration over the Justice Department’s refusal to explain how it used a disputed dossier.
A group of House Republicans has gathered secretly for weeks in the Capitol in an effort to build a case that senior leaders of the Justice Department and FBI improperly — and perhaps criminally — mishandled the contents of a dossier that describes alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia, according to four people familiar with their plans.
A subset of the Republican members of the House intelligence committee, led by Chairman Devin Nunes of California, has been quietly working parallel to the committee’s high-profile inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. They haven’t informed Democrats about their plans, but they have consulted with the House’s general counsel.
The people familiar with Nunes’ plans said the goal is to highlight what some committee Republicans see as corruption and conspiracy in the upper ranks of federal law enforcement. The group hopes to release a report early next year detailing their concerns about the DOJ and FBI, and they might seek congressional votes to declassify elements of their evidence.
That final product could ultimately be used by Republicans to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether any Trump aides colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign — or possibly even to justify his dismissal, as some rank-and-file Republicans and Trump allies have demanded. (The president has said he is not currently considering firing Mueller.)
Republicans in the Nunes-led group suspect the FBI and DOJ have worked either to hurt Trump or aid his former campaign rival Hillary Clinton, a sense that has pervaded parts of the president’s inner circle. Trump has long called the investigations into whether Russia meddled in the 2016 election a “witch hunt,” and on Tuesday, his son Donald Trump Jr. told a crowd in Florida the probes were part of a “rigged system” by “people at the highest levels of government” who were working to hurt the president.
The sources familiar with the separate inquiry said it was born out of steadily building frustration with the Justice Department’s refusal to share details of the way the Trump dossier was used to launch the FBI’s investigation of his campaign team last year — or whether it was the basis for any court-ordered surveillance of Trump associates.
The group is relying on the same documents and testimony provided by top Obama administration officials — such as former acting attorney general Sally Yates, former attorney general Loretta Lynch and former UN ambassador Samantha Power — who were grilled as part of the intelligence committee’s broader Russia probe.
It’s unclear how many members of the intelligence committee are participating in the side effort. Lawmakers on the full committee interviewed by POLITICO refused to discuss it.
“I don’t talk about what we do behind closed doors,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who’s leading the intelligence committee’s bipartisan Russia probe. “I’m not going to talk about that,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), another member of the panel.
A congressional aide with knowledge of the meetings said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) was not among the participants. ”While he does believe the FBI and DOJ have recently made decisions worth looking into, he is and will always be a defender of the FBI, DOJ and the special counsel,” the aide said.
Nunes’ office declined to comment about the effort, but he has aired his suspicions about the law enforcement agencies before.
“I hate to use the word corrupt, but they’ve become at least so dirty that who’s watching the watchmen? Who’s investigating these people?” he said in a Fox News interview earlier this month. “There is no one.”
DOJ and FBI officials also declined to comment. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the FBI and Mueller’s team at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill. “The special counsel investigation is not a witch hunt,” he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said he wasn’t aware of the Nunes effort but said it fit with what he sees as an increasingly destructive bent in Republicans’ rhetoric and actions.
“I think what we are seeing in our committee … is an effort to attack the Department of Justice, an effort to attack the FBI, to attack Bob Mueller, is an effort to undermine the investigations and these institutions out of fear of what they’ll find and try to discredit them in advance,” he said. “It’s a pernicious thing to do that will ultimately inflict long-term damage on these institutions.”
The Nunes-led group is the latest evidence of an increasingly toxic and bruising confrontation between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the highest ranks of the justice system. Some Hill Republicans are irate about the Justice Department’s refusal to provide more details about its investigation of Trump associates’ ties to Russia. They’re also frothing over the FBI’s handling of the Trump-Russia dossier, which GOP lawmakers have openly mocked as “discredited” and “disproven.”
In recent weeks, GOP lawmakers have berated top Justice Department officials and threatened to hold them in contempt of Congress, and a couple of rank-and-file members described ongoing investigations of Trump associates in startling terms — including as a potential “coup” attempt. On Wednesday, Fox News reported that Nunes intends to subpoena senior FBI agents connected to the dossier.
Earlier this week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called for the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, to be replaced amid claims by Republicans of anti-Trump bias infecting the bureau. And Gowdy, the chairman of the House oversight committee, joined House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte on Tuesday to request interviews with senior FBI officials as early as Thursday — which some lawmakers say is the precursor to subpoenas.
To Democrats, the GOP offensive is an attempt to distract from the investigation of Trump associates by Mueller, who has already indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and secured a guilty plea from his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. There are indications he’s investigating whether Trump obstructed justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey, whose exit led to Mueller taking over the Russia probe.
The more dangerous Mueller’s probe has seemed to become to the White House, the louder the attacks have gotten from Trump allies on Capitol Hill, Democrats say.
“Republicans are terrified that Special Counsel Mueller is getting closer to the truth, and they are desperate to grind his investigation to a halt — even if they undermine the foundations of our democracy,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a statement after Republicans requested the FBI interviews.
GOP lawmakers have become increasingly fixated on the FBI’s use of the dossier describing sometimes salacious allegations of Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. The document was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was commissioned by opposition research firm Fusion GPS. Under pressure from Nunes, Fusion revealed that funding for the dossier project was provided by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The House general counsel helped argue on behalf of Nunes in court to compel the release of Fusion’s funding information.
In January, then-FBI Director Comey briefed Trump about the dossier prior to his inauguration, and the contents subsequently leaked in the media after circulating in Washington for months. Trump has rejected the allegations as fiction, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have largely dismissed it as a “discredited” or “false” document, though investigators have spent months attempting to verify its contents.
Still, Republicans on the intelligence and judiciary committees have increasingly wondered aloud whether the FBI — which had a longstanding relationship with Steele — used the allegations in his dossier to obtain surveillance warrants to spy on Trump campaign associates. They also want to know if the agency paid Steele for his work at the same time he was being paid by the Clinton campaign.
In recent weeks, Republicans have grown more vocal in their accusations that the FBI, DOJ and Mueller’s team are biased. They’ve railed against political donations that some of Mueller’s attorneys have made to Democrats. And more recently, they’ve pointed to a series of text messages — revealed by the DOJ inspector general — in which two senior FBI officials, who were previously assigned to the special counsel’s office, bashed Trump.
Schiff said committee rules require consultation between Republicans and Democrats, but House Speaker Paul Ryan must enforce bipartisan cooperation if he wants it to occur.
“And at this point, you have to conclude that he doesn’t,” Schiff said. Ryan’s office declined to comment.