Witnesses for the House GOP’s investigation into potential bias at the top levels of U.S. law enforcement have grown increasingly dubious of the probe — to the point that some actually prefer public hearings to private ones.
Case in point: Former FBI Director James Comey on Monday declined to submit to a private interview with members of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform panels, who comprise a joint “task force” examining whether “decisions made and not made” by the Justice Department and FBI during the 2016 Clinton email and Trump-Russia investigations were tinged with anti-Republican bias.
Republican leaders have acquiesced to House conservatives and will summon Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to give sworn testimony in another private meeting in the coming weeks. The DOJ has not announced whether Rosenstein will assent to an interview.
Democrats, interviewees and even some Republicans have railed against GOP lawmakers for selectively leaking snippets of private interviews to the media that they say take words out of context.
Gowdy, one of the GOP chairmen charged with scheduling the interviews, said he understands why some witnesses might be reluctant to “abide by confidentiality while many of the members do not do so.”
“I too lament the leaks, which is why I do not engage in them,” Gowdy said. He blamed the broken confidentiality promises on “a voracious appetite for leaks in D.C.,” noting that reporters lurking outside committee rooms are as eager for the latest scoop as some members are to dish it out.
“After every closed door interview I have ever done, there are reporters asking that the pledge of confidentiality be broken. I am routinely asked to divulge not simply confidential information but classified information,” Gowdy said.
‘Just designed to undermine the Mueller investigation’
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, kept the focus of his blame on the lawmakers who deliver the leaks.
“I’d be very reluctant to be a witness, to have my testimony misused and quoted out of context,” Nadler said.
“They are conducting a so-called investigation that’s just designed to undermine the Mueller investigation, that’s designed to sabotage it,” Nadler said, referring to the ongoing special counsel investigation into the DOJ probing the 2016 Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
Nadler pointed to the fate of former FBI official Peter Strzok, who was fired in August after months of intense scrutiny over anti-Trump text messages he exchanged with DOJ lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was romantically involved.
In September, conservative House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows wrote a letter to Rosenstein claiming he and other task force members had seen texts between Strzok and Page that suggested they were complicit in a “systemic culture of media leaking by high-ranking officials.”
Only members of Congress have access to all the exchanges between the pair, though the public has learned about many of their conversations through leaks and public hearings.
Strzok texted Page in April 2017 about the DOJ’s “media leak strategy” and how he did not want changes to be made to it. Meadows suggested this incriminated the duo in a pattern of leaking information to the media.
“The documents clearly show that Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page were not discussing how to leak documents to the press — but whether the Justice Department should change its regulations to stop leaks to the media,” the Democrats said.
Strzok’s lawyer Aitan Goelman was highly critical of the private interview process the joint panel has employed.
“The idea that the committee can … ask everybody to maintain confidentiality then misleadingly leak select portions of the transcript and refuse to allow the entire transcript to be published is downright Kafkaesque,” Goelman said.
Comey is not the first person on the Republicans’ witness list to reject their request for a private interview.
Glenn Simpson, the founder of the political opposition research firm Fusion GPS — which paid former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele in 2016 to put together the now-infamous dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia — stiffed the committees’ Republicans in a letter last week excoriating their task force for “flouting its own rules of confidentiality and ignoring and abusing the rights of Americans who come before it.”
Simpson drew parallels between his view of Republicans’ investigative tactics— leaking portions of private testimony without releasing full transcripts — and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for covert communists in the State Department, U.S. Army and Truman administration in the 1950s.
During a roughly two-year stretch from 1953 to 1954, McCarthy conducted more than 500 sealed depositions with witnesses. He then spun those stories to the press to support his claims that communism ran rife in the upper echelons of U.S. foreign policymaking.
“This ostensibly protected the privacy of those interrogated, but also gave the chairman an opportunity to give to the press his version of what had transpired behind closed doors, with little chance of rebuttal,” then-Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie concluded in 2003.
“It is a profound disappointment to see Congress recycle Senator McCarthy’s and [his chief counsel] Mr. Cohn’s treacherous tactics from a regrettable chapter of history that, until now, served as a lesson of how members of Congress should not treat fellow Americans,” Simpson’s lawyers wrote to Goodlatte and Gowdy.
Goodlatte responded by subpoenaing Simpson on Friday to come before the committee.
The conservative crusaders leading the public charge against the DOJ and FBI, Meadows and Freedom Caucus founder Jim Jordan of Ohio, dismissed critics’ accusations and indicated they would like nothing more than to release transcripts of their interviews so the public can sort out the truth for itself.
“Transparency is a friend to me, not an enemy,” Meadows said.
“I’d be open to, after each one of these depositions, to releasing the transcript — I have no problem with that,” Jordan said.
“I’m open to having public hearings. But I don’t get to make those calls,” he said, deferring to Goodlatte, Gowdy and House GOP leadership.
Goodlatte’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story via text and email, and a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan referred any comment to Gowdy’s office.
All spectacle and no substance
Task force Republicans have mostly avoided public forums since their blockbuster hearings with Strzok and Rosenstein in June descended into fierce partisan arguing about what kinds of questions the witnesses could answer.
Republicans and Democrats accused each other at the time of grandstanding for the cameras. Both parties want to avoid repeating that — though if Democrats had it their way, the investigation would be shut down.
“It’s fine to be a transcribed interview,” Meadows said of Rosenstein’s pending appearance. “I don’t know if we have to have it on television.”
Gowdy said in July that high-profile public hearings are often all “spectacle” and “no substance.”
“Things done in private are more constructive than things done in public, unfortunately, in the current political environment,” the Oversight chairman said, referring to the multiple Russia-related investigations in the House and Senate since Trump took office.
Nadler and the Democrats think the damage has already been done in terms of undermining public trust in Congress’ oversight role.
“Any misuse of the oversight institutions impugns their integrity and their reputation, and they’ve certainly done that,” Nadler said. “The Benghazi hearings were a farce, the Strzok hearings were a farce. Hopefully we’ll have a majority and we’ll rehabilitate the reputation of the House for oversight.”
The panel still has a number of current and former DOJ and FBI officials it wants to interview behind closed doors before issuing any kind of report.
Over the August recess, lawmakers and their staff met with the DOJ’s Bruce Ohr, former FBI general counsel James Baker, and DOJ legal adviser Trisha Anderson in such settings.
They have scheduled October interviews with a handful of other people of interest at the DOJ and FBI and in the private sector, including Ohr’s wife, Nellie Ohr.
Watch: Strzok Defends Anti-Trump Text Messages: Look at the Context