Justice Dept. gives Nunes access to document on Russia probe's origins, cooling his threat to impeach its leaders

Wednesday , April 11, 2018 - 10:00 PM

Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department on Wednesday gave House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes access to a redacted document detailing the origin of the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election - a day after Nunes suggested publicly he might impeach top FBI or Justice Department officials over their failure to produce what he wanted.

A Justice Department official said that the department had provided Nunes, R-Calif., ranking Democratic member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and all committee members access to the document, with redactions “narrowly tailored to protect the name of a foreign country and the name of a foreign agent.”

The document is said to detail how the Russia investigation started, at least in part because a young Trump foreign policy adviser boasted to an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton. That was months before hacked Democratic Party emails began appearing online. The Justice Department’s providing Nunes access to it seemed to placate him at least for the moment, as he issued a statement afterward thanking Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for his cooperation.

Various congressional Republicans have for months been waging an increasingly aggressive campaign to get the Justice Department to turn over a bevy of materials on some of its most high-profile controversies and investigations - including the investigation of Clinton’s private email server, the Russia probe and the firing of former deputy director Andrew McCabe from the FBI. They have complained that department leaders are producing documents too slowly, and with too many redactions.

Nunes and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., had been particularly vocal and issued subpoenas for materials they wanted.

The campaign has escalated in recent days and weeks. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter over the weekend, “What does the Department of Justice and FBI have to hide? Why aren’t they giving the strongly requested documents (unredacted) to the HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE? Stalling, but for what reason? Not looking good!”

Then, on Tuesday, Nunes said on Fox News that officials would “have a plan to hold in contempt and to impeach” Justice Department officials who bucked his subpoena, including possibly FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Some fear - particularly given the recent FBI raid of his personal lawyer’s house, hotel room and office - that the president might use the document dispute as a pretext to make dramatic changes at the Justice Department, such as by firing Rosenstein or Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That could impact Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia.

Sessions has recused from the probe, leaving Rosenstein to supervise Mueller. If either was fired, Trump could theoretically subvert the natural succession line and replace them with someone who might exert more control over Mueller.

Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, Nunes and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., huddled with Goodlatte, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, on the House floor to discuss how they planned to approach the FBI and Justice Department. Immediately afterward, Meadows told reporters that the group was seriously considering holding Rosenstein in contempt of Congress for the Justice Department’s failure to provide lawmakers with the documents they had requested.

“Contempt of Congress is really at the doorstep of Rod Rosenstein more than anybody else,” Meadows said.

He called contempt “the first step” to be followed by “other tools” if the Justice Department did not produce the documents requested under the subpoena.

“It is certainly on the path to impeachment,” Meadows said, noting that GOP leaders had not ruled out potentially filing impeachment papers for Rosenstein if he failed to produce the materials.

He added: “They’ve had more than enough time, so let me just tell you: they’re past due.”

But the move toward impeachment surprised other Republican members, who wondered on what grounds either could be brought up on such charges.

“There has to be a high crime or misdemeanor, I would assume, to offer articles of impeachment. I don’t know what those would be at this point,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a senior member of the intelligence panel.

The Justice Department has been working to allay legislators’ concerns, doubling, from 27 to 54, the number of FBI staffers assigned to produce documents, and tapping John Lausch, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, to supervise the response to Goodlatte’s request.

Earlier this week, Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, met with Lausch, and while they came away from the meeting with a good impression, both said that he had inspired no particular confidence that lawmakers would see the documents they were waiting for any sooner.

“Mr. Lausch seems like a good guy but what they’ve been doing thus far has been terrible,” Jordan said. “There’s a lot of improvement that has to happen, so count me as a skeptic.”

Lausch appeared Wednesday morning on Fox and Friends, one of Trump’s favorite television shows, attempting to reassure skeptical questioners that the Justice Department was responding appropriately to the Goodlatte request. Later in the day, the department revealed it had allowed Nunes to see the document he sought, with just a few words replaced with generic descriptors to shield the name of a foreign country and agent.

A Justice Department official said that had to be done because “revealing the words could harm the national security of the American people by undermining the trust we have with this foreign nation.” Lausch is not supervising the response to Nunes’ request.

“These words appear only a limited number of times, and do not obstruct the underlying meaning of the document,” the official said.

The official said the Justice Department believed it had “substantially satisfied Chairman Nunes’ August subpoena in an appropriate fashion.” Nunes said in a statement he and Gowdy were “finally” given access to the document they sought that “contained the information necessary to advance the Committee’s ongoing investigation of the Department of Justice and FBI.”

“Although the subpoenas issued by this Committee in August 2017 remain in effect, I’d like to thank Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein for his cooperation today,” Nunes said.

The Justice Department also permitted access to 1,000 pages of classified material, an official said.

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