A confirmation hearing for former Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, who was nominated to a key trade post, was interrupted and then delayed on Thursday as the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee fought over information in Issa’s FBI file that could be potentially disqualifying.
Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, had decided to hold confirmation hearings for two nominees whose FBI background files contained classified and potentially disqualifying information that the White House declined to release to anyone other than Risch and ranking Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
In going forward with the hearing, Risch broke with decades of bipartisan tradition in the committee, which normally would not schedule confirmation hearings without the agreement of the ranking member of the opposing party. Menendez had opposed the scheduling of the hearing.
Ultimately, Risch agreed to indefinitely delay the confirmation hearing on Issa’s nomination to lead the U.S. Trade and Development Agency after an unprecedented public back-and-forth with Menendez over allegedly problematic and potentially disqualifying classified information in Issa’s FBI background investigation. The White House has thus far declined to provide the information to the rest of the committee members.
The confirmation hearing for the second nominee, Marshall Billingslea, who has been tapped to lead the State Department’s human rights activities, did take place despite Menendez’s concerns with document holes in his background file from his days working for the George W. Bush administration on detainee torture polices.
Both Issa and Billingslea were formally nominated in January, but their confirmation hearings were held up by Menendez as he sought to gain access to more of the memos written by Billingslea for then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the post-9/11 period. The memos encourage interrogation practices that have since been deemed to constitute torture and made illegal by Congress.
‘Problematic and disqualifying’
Risch had joined Menendez in sending a letter earlier this year asking the White House to release the FBI background investigation into Issa, who in his past role as chairman of the House Oversight Committee was a relentless interrogator of Obama administration officials. But their joint letter received no response, according to Menendez.
“The White House has simply ignored the joint request of the chairman and the ranking member of this committee for additional information on an executive branch nominee,” Menendez said.
Menendez then moved to close the hearing to the public in order to enable a more specific discussion with Issa about the concerns, which Menendez said were shared by all committee Democrats, about the lack of access to the FBI background investigation.
Risch objected to Menendez’s motion, and a roll call vote was held. All Democrats plus Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, voted to close the hearing to the public. The motion tied, 11-11, which meant it failed.
The chairman then said he was fine having an open discussion of Issa’s FBI background check. He also promised not to schedule a confirmation vote until all committee members have been granted access to the file.
“I think these nominees are going to have to tolerate whatever embarrassing things you have to bring up,” said Risch. “We can talk about it. I’m not going to stop anybody. I am not going to restrain any discussion.”
But Menendez, a chorus of Democrats and Paul successfully argued that it was a violation of Issa’s rights to allow a public discussion of potentially embarrassing information when they had no idea of the scope or contents of it beforehand.
“This is exactly the opposite of what we all complained about with the Supreme Court,” Paul said, referring to the deeply divisive 2018 confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. “I think it is a terrible, rotten thing that we are doing.”
Risch then agreed to a private conference with Menendez and Issa. Afterward, Risch announced he would delay Issa’s confirmation hearing.
Throughout the public contretemps, Issa sat stone-faced and silent at the witness table.
“Our objection is over the administration’s refusal to provide the committee . . . basic vetting information,” Menendez said. “There is information that the White House controls and that this administration refuses to share.”
Menendez, who had access to the file, said he believed members would find it “problematic and disqualifying for Senate confirmation.”
It was not immediately clear what information was contained in Issa’s background check that could be disqualifying, but the nine-term congressman’s run-ins with the law as a young man have been well-documented.
In 1972, he and his older brother, William, were arrested for allegedly stealing a Maserati from a car dealership. The charges were dropped. In 1980, the two were charged with faking the theft of Issa’s Mercedes-Benz; again, the charges were dropped. In both cases, Issa blamed his brother.
In 2011, the New Yorker reported that Issa had settled out of court with his then-insurance company over a 1982 warehouse fire claim that arson and insurance investigators found suspicious. The cloud created by those incidents contributed to Issa’s unsuccessful 1998 bid for a Senate seat, though he was elected to the House two years later.
Issa, who served in the House from 2001 through 2018, has said he is considering running against embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, who faces a trial in January on charges of campaign finance violations. Issa asked that the administration withdraw his nomination if it had not been approved by November so he could enter the House race.
Issa was considered the wealthiest member of the House while he was in office.