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GOP senators sharpen their knives as the full Mueller report looms

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wants to investigate the officials behind the Mueller probe.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) holds a press conference in the U.S. Capitol to discuss a report by special counsel Robert Mueller on March 25, 2019. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) holds a press conference in the U.S. Capitol to discuss a report by special counsel Robert Mueller on March 25, 2019. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

As Congress waits on special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report into whether members of the Trump campaign aided Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, Senate Republicans are sharpening their knives for the officials behind the probe.

“Republicans believe that the FBI and DOJ – the top people – took the law in their own hands because they wanted [Hillary] Clinton to win and Trump to lose,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday on Fox News.

“You know, there’s a lot of suspicion, there’s a lot of direct evidence, I think, of bias,” Graham continued. “Let’s have somebody like a Mueller to look at the other side of the story.”

A letter from Attorney General William Barr to Congress last week that seemed to clear Trump and his campaign of collusion with Russia has breathed fresh life into Republican concerns that the two-year investigation may have been politically motivated.

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Some Democrats on the Hill have been pumping the brakes since Barr’s letter, waiting to see what’s in Mueller’s full 400-page report, which they expect to receive in mid-April, and calling on Barr and Mueller to testify about the investigation’s findings under oath.

Other Democrats, including several 2020 presidential hopefuls, have seemingly pivoted from Russia to looming policy fights over health care ahead of the election.

But the White House and congressional Republicans have seized on Barr’s letter, seeing in it an opening to turn the tables and draw a veil of scandal over what Trump often calls “the other side.”

“This was an illegal takedown that failed,” he told reporters as he waited to board Air Force One at Palm Beach International Airport after the Barr letter came out. “And hopefully, somebody is going to be looking at the other side.”

Mueller’s probe began as an FBI counterintelligence investigation into links between Russia and the Trump campaign in August 2016, well before President Donald Trump’s upset victory that November. The investigation reportedly began with Australian intelligence that Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos had inside knowledge of Russian efforts to steal emails from the Clinton campaign to help Trump.

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But the White House and congressional Republicans have long alleged that the investigation was motivated by political bias. Those accusations came to a head in late 2017, when news emerged that two FBI officials who had been assigned to the Mueller team, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, exchanged personal text messages that were highly critical of Trump during the 2016 election.

Critics of the Russia probe play on conspiracy theories about the “deep state” that have long haunted right-wing politics. Proponents claim that career bureaucrats, especially in the Intelligence agencies, form a shadow U.S. government that operates beyond the reach of democratic accountability or control.

Some critics of the Russia probe on the left have also pointed to concerns about the power and role of secretive intelligence agencies and fears over the return of the anti-communist “red scares” of the 1950s.

Top intelligence officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations have been steadfast in their assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to tip the scales toward Trump. Several members of Trump’s campaign had contact with suspected Kremlin surrogates during the 2016 campaign, and several of those meetings involved offers of assistance or promises of dirt on Clinton.

The question, which many hope Mueller’s report will answer when it is released next month, is whether those overtures between the Russia government and the Trump campaign amounted to coordination on the election interference efforts.

So who is this “other side” that Trump and some congressional Republicans wish to investigate?

These Republicans have not been consistent about where they think the conspiracy against Trump began. They have, at times, fingered Obama administration officials like former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, career FBI and DOJ staff like Strzok and Page, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Mueller’s team of prosecutors, or all of the above.

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“I think Director Comey is probably near the top,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said recently of former FBI Director James Comey, who leaked memos about conversations he had with Trump to the press after the president fired him in May 2017.

“He’s the one who said that his intention of leaking memos of his conversation was designed to prompt the appointment of a special counsel. It just strikes me as some vindictiveness and animus toward the president motivating a lot of the action.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) honed in on Obama administration national security officials during a recent interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

“[A]t the top, in Washington, at the leadership level, it appears that there is a serious cultural problem in some of these organizations like the FBI, like the National Security Division, like the State Department from the last months of the Obama era, in what they did not only to put a thumb on the scales of the campaign, but then tried to sabotage the transition of power to the Trump administration,” Cotton said. “There needs to be an accounting of that.”

Republicans have also seized on a dossier of lurid opposition research on Trump by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The dossier was funded first by donors supporting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and then by a law firm for the Clinton campaign. Late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a critic of Trump, referred a copy of the dossier to the FBI during the 2016 campaign.

Some of the dossier’s claims about ties between Russia and the Trump campaign have proved accurate. Others have been discredited.

“We need every ounce of information about the people at the very top of our intelligence community that were promoting the inclusion of this fake dossier,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said recently.

“We based this investigation on a lie,” Paul continued. “We should investigate who the liars were.”

Congressional Democrats are largely shying away from engaging with Republican attacks, for now, focusing instead on the release of the Mueller report. But several former officials singled out by Republicans have defended themselves from the charges of political bias.

“The information we had which was alleging a Russian offer of assistance to a member of the Trump campaign was of extraordinary significance,” Strzok said during marathon congressional testimony last July. “It was credible. It was from an extraordinarily sensitive and credible source.”

Former CIA Director John Brennan, a critic of Trump, took to Twitter on Thursday to defend House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) after Republicans on the committee called for his resignation.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or an American of any or of no political affiliation,” Brennan said. “We all should hold our elected officials and those who hold the public’s trust to the highest ethical and moral standards, most especially Presidents [sic].”

Comey was especially vehement in his defense of the FBI in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt on Wednesday, three days after Barr’s letter came out.

“I don’t think that we’ve seen in the history of our country, the president try to burn down an institution of justice because he saw it as a threat,” Comey said of Trump’s repeated attacks on the FBI and the Justice Department. “And the lies he told, forget about me, the lies he told about the agents of the FBI, ‘storm troopers,’ the lies he told about Bob Mueller, were terrible.”