Between Russian meddling in last year’s election, Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey and the president’s public drubbing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the House Judiciary Committee has a lot it could be looking into.
But its Republican chairman, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, has a different priority: investigating Hillary Clinton.
Goodlatte has called for new scrutiny of decisions made by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department in its probe of Clinton’s use of a private email server, as well as alleged Clinton ties to foreign governments and the leaking of classified information.
That’s put House Democrats in the odd position of praising another Republican — Goodlatte’s Senate counterpart, Chuck Grassley of Iowa. The Senate Judiciary chairman has threatened to subpoena Trump’s son to testify about possible collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign and demanded records about Russian interactions with Trump family members and campaign officials.
“We’ve got to give Grassley and the Senate credit,” Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a House Judiciary Committee Democrat, said at a hearing last week. “They are not over there denying the reality of what is going on.”
Republicans in Congress have struggled to calibrate their approaches to the Russia investigation and the current administration’s actions, with many of them torn between protecting a Republican administration from partisan attacks and conducting defensive oversight in case significant wrongdoing emerges.
The House Judiciary panel has remained unusually standoffish. When Democrats on the panel tried last week to force through a resolution demanding more information on Sessions’s role in Comey’s firing, Goodlatte and Republicans on the panel turned it into a request demanding new probes into Clinton.
Goodlatte has “done zero — absolutely zero — as chairman to look into these things,” Jerrold Nadler of New York, a Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, said in an interview. “Certainly, Senator Grassley doesn’t agree with that thinking.”
Goodlatte, who didn’t respond to a request for an interview, has said there are plenty of other investigations underway, including by the House and Senate Intelligence panels, as well as a continuing FBI probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“Until Mr. Mueller’s investigation is complete, it is redundant for the House of Representatives to engage in fact-gathering on many of the same issues he is investigating,” Goodlatte said at a hearing last week.
Given all the probes, he said there’s no reason for his panel to use “taxpayer dollars to investigate the Trump campaign’s connections — or lack thereof — to the Russian government.”
John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, does credit Goodlatte for trying to schedule a briefing with Mueller, where the pair are expected get an update on his probe. But unless Goodlatte and his committee gets more involved in doing its own work, Conyers warns “lasting damage” could be inflicted on the Justice Department on Goodlatte’s watch.
Nadler added that it is the responsibility of the Judiciary Committee to oversee or even protect the independence of the Justice Department and FBI, and that’s what’s at stake now, he says.
Both the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees are looking into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The Senate Judiciary panel is also looking into Trump’s dismissal of Comey, who had been leading the investigation into Russia’s meddling and possible connections to the Trump camp.
But concern from lawmakers from both parties has continued to rise in recent weeks, fueled by Trump’s repeated public criticisms of Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s Russia probe. Lawmakers from both parties have said they stood by Sessions and that the president’s comments were inappropriate.
Yet rather than turn to those issues, Goodlatte and the Republican members of his panel sent a letter to Sessions demanding he appoint a second special counsel to investigate “troubling, unanswered questions” related to Trump’s Democratic opponent in the election, as well as several officials appointed by Obama.
“Many congressional entities have been engaged in oversight of Russian influence on the election, but a comprehensive investigation into the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath must, similarly, be free of even the suggestion of political interference,” they wrote.
Goodlatte, 64, is a conservative Republican representing some of the reddest parts of Virginia. He has a lifetime grade of “A” from the National Rifle Association and branded as unconstitutional the Obama administration’s plan to defer deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.
His panel is also the one that would have jurisdiction over any impeachment proceeding, a step that several Democrats have called for. For that to happen, the Republican-dominated House would have to authorize the Judiciary Committee to investigate, and then Goodlatte’s panel would vote on whether there’s enough evidence for impeachment.
While Goodlatte has been willing over the years to collaborate with Democrats on some issues, Russia isn’t one of them.
“This president is a threat to this nation, to its constitution, to its democracy — and we are doing nothing to respond,” said Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a House Judiciary Committee Democrat, at a hearing last week. “Except, let’s go back and look at Hillary Clinton’s emails?”
Grassley, who for months has defended the Trump administration, recently has taken a harder line. Last week, Grassley’s committee held a hearing that touched on whether the Kremlin might have been behind a June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer. Grassley also joined with his panel’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, in using the threat of subpoenas to force former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump Jr. to provide documents and sit down for interviews.
When Trump recently began publicly criticizing Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, over his recusal from the Russia investigation, Grassley said his panel wouldn’t consider confirming a replacement this year.
Goodlatte has been silent on Trump’s criticisms of Sessions, which has left Democrats in the unusual position of defending the former senator from Alabama.
“Whatever we think about the political views of Attorney General Sessions, this conduct is not right. It is not normal. And it deserves the immediate attention of this committee,” Conyers said during last week’s hearing.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee say they back Goodlatte’s position.
“The Democrats make sure that just about all we talk about in Judiciary is Russia — even though they don’t even know how to find Russia on the map,” said Representative Trent Franks of Arizona in an interview. “They just want to use it as a political bludgeon against Trump.”
Andy Biggs of Arizona, another Republican on the panel, says there are plenty of Russia investigations already underway. Like Goodlatte, he sees a need to investigate Obama administration officials, saying there are unresolved questions about Clinton’s emails and other topics.
“Those need to be answered,” he said at last week’s hearing.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland has a different view: “If all this is simply meant to somehow distract and divert from the ongoing special counsel investigation and somehow to create the idea of symmetry and parity, that strikes me as antithetical to the purposes of this committee.”