WASHINGTON – Republicans accused top federal law enforcement officials Thursday of withholding important documents from them and demanded details about surveillance tactics during the Russia investigation in a contentious congressional hearing that capped days of mounting partisan complaints.
The hearing was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s first appearance before Congress since an internal Justice Department report criticized the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and revealed new disparaging text messages among FBI officials about President Donald Trump during the 2016 election.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee suggested the department has conspired against Trump by refusing to turn over documents they believe would show improper conduct by the FBI. They seized on the inspector general report to allege bias against the president by the FBI and to discredit an investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign that is now led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“This country is being hurt by it. We are being divided,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, said of the investigation.
“Whatever you’ve got,” he added, “finish it the hell up because this country is being torn apart.”
Thursday’s hearing came as the House passed a resolution demanding the department turn over thousands of documents by July 6 on FBI investigations into Clinton’s private email use and Trump campaign ties to Russia. Both investigations unfolded during the presidential election, causing the FBI – which prides itself on independence – to become entangled in presidential politics in ways that are continuing to shake out.
The hearing followed weeks of Republican attacks on the Justice Department and allegations of bias within the FBI. On Wednesday, lawmakers spent hours behind closed doors grilling Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who worked on both the Clinton and Russia investigations and traded anti-Trump text messages with an FBI lawyer.
The inspector general criticized the officials for creating an appearance of impropriety through those messages but did not find evidence that bias had tainted the final decisions of prosecutors in the Clinton investigation.
Republican Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, one of the strongest GOP critics of the Republican-led Justice Department, and Jim Jordan of Ohio were behind the nonbinding resolution.
Meadows did not deny Democratic assertions that the document requests were related to efforts to undercut Mueller’s probe.
“Yes, when we get these documents, we believe that it will do away with this whole fiasco of what they call the Russian Trump collusion because there wasn’t any,” he said on the House floor.
Those documents have already been subpoenaed by the House Judiciary and intelligence committees. The panels want to use the records as part of multiple congressional investigations into the FBI’s decision to clear Clinton in the email investigation and its opening of an investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The Justice Department has already turned over more than 800,000 documents to congressional committees, but the subpoenas are asking for additional materials, including records about any surveillance of Trump campaign associates. Lawmakers have threatened to hold top Justice Department officials in contempt or impeach them if the documents aren’t turned over.
On the floor, lawmakers hurled insults as Republicans said Congress is entitled to whatever it wants and Democrats said Republicans were trying to undermine the Russia investigation.
“We have a petulant Department of Justice defended by a petulant Democratic party,” said Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Va.
Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, shot back: “We’re caught up in this nonsense because they can’t get over Hillary Clinton’s emails. Get over it!”
Wray and Rosenstein said law enforcement officials have been working diligently to turn over the requested records, though Republicans made clear their dissatisfaction at the pace.
“We have caught you hiding information, Mr. Rosenstein,” Jordan said during the hearing. Rosenstein, speaking at times with a raised voice and pointed finger, strongly denied the accusation, saying he felt that Jordan’s criticism had at times bordered on a personal attack.
“I am the deputy attorney general of the United States, OK?” he said. “I’m not the person doing the redacting. I am responsible for responding to your concerns, as I have.
“Whenever you have brought issues to my attention, I have taken appropriate steps to remedy them.”
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, signaled the tone of the hearing in his opening remarks when he complained about the FBI and the Justice Department not producing all of the documents that have been requested.
“The Department of Justice and the FBI are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The President and Congress are,” Goodlatte said. “Our Constitutional oversight necessitates that institutions like the FBI and DOJ yield to Congress’ constitutional mandate.”
Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida demanded to know why Rosenstein had not recused from oversight of Mueller’s investigation into whether the president had committed obstruction of justice given Rosenstein’s role in laying the groundwork for the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Rosenstein wrote a memo last year criticizing Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, a document the White House initially held up as the rationale for his firing.
“I can assure you that if it were appropriate for me to recuse, I’d be more than happy to do so,” Rosenstein said.
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