Congressional Republicans divided on attacking Trump investigations

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Former president Donald Trump announces his bid for president in 2024 at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 15.

WASHINGTON – Republicans in Congress are splintering over how aggressively to run interference for former president Donald Trump as he faces potential criminal prosecution, with only his closest allies planning to directly attack the Department of Justice investigations now under the purview of special counsel Jack Smith.

The chasm between lawmakers who have continued to vehemently defend the newly announced presidential candidate and those who have started to quietly inch away from the former president widened last week as top GOP leaders laid out the party’s investigative priorities. The emerging split raises another sign of Trump’s uncertain position in the party after a month where he was widely blamed for a disappointing midterm and drew criticism for controversial statements.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest allies who will be the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee next year, said he was less interested in going after the Justice Department for the Jan. 6, 2021, investigation into the attack on the U.S. Capitol or the investigation into Trump’s handling of classified information.

“I don’t see an interruption of an ongoing investigation into Trump, that’s going to play itself out one way or the other,” Graham said in an interview, focusing instead on President Biden’s son. “But I think DOJ and FBI need to be asked questions about what they told Facebook, Twitter and other media outlets about the Hunter Biden story.”

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) walks to a vote on Capitol Hill on Sept. 8.

By contrast, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the current ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, are taking on the Trump investigations more directly, raising questions about the appointment of a special counsel for Trump but not for Hunter Biden or probes related to Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails in 2016.

The lawmakers said they have been approached by whistleblowers objecting to political considerations inside the FBI, which could serve to reinforce Trump’s claims of being unfairly targeted. Incoming House Judiciary chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio is poised to press the Justice Department on the decision to search Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., home as well.

The strategy resembles how Trump allies worked to undermine the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election by seizing on the FBI’s use of a dossier produced as Republican and Democratic opposition research.

“It’s an easy crutch for them to grasp and they’re grasping it because they can’t actually defend what he’s potentially going to be indicted for,” said one House GOP staffer, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “They lean on this as opposed to defending him on the facts, which they can’t do.”

Jordan’s counterpart on the House oversight committee, however, recently said in a CNN interview that following up an investigation into classified documents found at Trump’s private club and estate in Florida “will not be a priority.” Incoming chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) has been conducting the minority party’s own investigation into the August search warrant executed at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, but he has indicated he favors prioritizing investigations examining Twitter’s handling of Hunter Biden reporting before the 2020 election and the origins of the coronavirus.

Despite the varying degrees of focus – or lack thereof – on Trump, Republicans are nevertheless still poised to pursue lines of inquiry that may overlap with the theme of politicization at the Justice Department. In an all-caps post to his Truth Social platform on Friday, Trump alleged an unprecedented “WEAPONIZATION” of federal law enforcement, reaching back to the government’s surveillance of foreign contacts with some people connected to Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Republican lawmakers and aides said the grab-bag of inquiries reflects less a coordinated strategy than a reflex after years of Trump scandals. A longtime Republican congressional investigator said the approach has become almost formulaic and gains traction within the feedback loop between right-wing media and Republican lawmakers.

“When the investigators give you an answer you don’t like, investigate the investigators,” the investigator said. “The members get invested, and then the base gets invested and even if things turn out to be really stupid things they are investigating, they’ll get a lot of Fox News out of it.”

In a fractious conference with a slim majority next year, some House Republicans have raised concerns about the relentless attacks on the FBI, especially after a Trump supporter tried to storm the Cincinnati field office in August.

“The rhetoric has got to be toned down,” a Republican member of the oversight committee said. “Sure, I’ve got questions and concerns about the DOJ and the FBI, but man, some of the tweets you’re seeing is just for dramatization. And if you want to be taken seriously, you have to treat the issue seriously.”

The lawmaker added: “The question is can Comer control some of the potential new members – like the woman from Georgia – that care less about substance and more about their Twitter profile?”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who’s vying for a seat on the oversight panel, has said she wants to examine the treatment of people charged in connection to the pro-Trump assault on the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy – who is trying to secure the votes to become House speaker by shoring up his support with far-right members like Greene – has signaled he wants to re-examine the work of the House select committee investigating the attack. McCarthy boycotted the panel after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blocked two of his appointments.

Neither effort would totally fulfill Trump’s demand for a congressional investigation of the 2020 election, which he insists without any evidence was stolen from him. He and his associates also face a federal investigation of efforts to organize phony electors claiming Trump won, a probe that is now also under Smith’s authority.

Trump and his most outspoken surrogates in right-wing media are more explicitly trying to draw a through-line from earlier scandals, continuing to build on the same counterattacks they marshaled against the investigation into Russian interference.

In 2018, a memo by House intelligence committee staff led by then-Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) raised allegations about the FBI’s handling of the early stage of the Russia investigation, attempting to bolster Trump’s evidence-free charge that the Obama administration had wiretapped his phones. The Nunes memo led to his recusal from the panel’s Russia investigation – he later left Congress and became the head of Trump’s embattled media venture – but it formed the basis for years of Republican attacks that culminated with John Durham, another special counsel. Durham eventually charged two people with false statements in connection with the investigation; both were acquitted.

“In 60 seconds, let’s go from Russiagate to the laptop,” former Trump aide Kash Patel said Monday on the “War Room” online talk show hosted by former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, referring to the Russia investigation and the materials about Hunter Biden. “It’s Russiagate on replay, on a monumentally bigger scale.”

Republican efforts to discredit the current Trump investigations have revolved around a former agent who they have described as involved in both. In May, Grassley identified Timothy Thibault, then a special agent in charge at the FBI’s Washington Field Office, as making social media posts that appeared critical of Trump. Thibault retired from the bureau in August and FBI director Christopher Wray, under questioning from Senate Republicans, acknowledged that the allegations were “deeply troubling” while wanting to avoid interfering with a specific personnel matter.

“Our folks need to make sure that they’re not just doing the right thing, that they’re doing it in the right way and that they avoid even the appearance of bias or lack of objectivity,” Wray said.

Several oversight letters from Grassley have described Thibault’s social media posts as tainting the criminal investigations of Trump, much as Republicans attacked the motivations of individual FBI officials in the Russia investigation. In a statement, Thibault’s lawyers said he was not involved in the search at Mar-a-Lago and did not supervise the investigation of alleged tax violations by Hunter Biden, which was handled by the FBI’s Baltimore office. Thibault is cooperating with an investigation of his social media posts by the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates alleged violations of the Hatch Act limiting certain political activity by federal employees.

Republicans have also seized on the role of Jim Baker, a top lawyer for the FBI during the Russia investigation who went on to a senior legal position at Twitter. The social media company’s new owner and CEO, billionaire Elon Musk, said he fired Baker after releasing information about the company’s internal handling of materials about Hunter Biden before the 2020 election. On Tuesday, Comer sought testimony from Baker and two other former company officials.

“The American people deserve to know why Twitter took down the Hunter Biden laptop story even when your colleagues were questioning the rationale for suppressing the story,” Comer wrote, referring to a New York Post story that was briefly suppressed on Twitter over concerns about its provenance.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency would review the oversight letters.

Congressional Republicans are especially interested in contacts between Twitter and the FBI or other government officials about election misinformation. That focus could build on an ongoing lawsuit by the Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri alleging that federal officials conspired with Twitter to suppress information about the pandemic and the election. The attorneys general have already deposed an FBI agent and former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, and a deposition with former White House press secretary Jen Psaki is scheduled for later this month. The Missouri attorney general, Eric Schmitt, was elected to the Senate and will take office in January.

Jordan has said his investigations are being guided by the accounts of 14 FBI whistleblowers who have contacted the committee with allegations ranging from investigating parents speaking at school board meetings to the handling of Jan. 6-related investigations and treatment of employees who hold conservative views.

The pursuit of whistleblowers recalls former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani’s statements ahead of the 2016 election claiming he’d heard from current and former FBI agents about an impending development in the Clinton emails investigation. Giuliani later told the Justice Department’s inspector general that he only heard “gossip” and wasn’t in touch with anyone with direct knowledge about the probe.

“We’re focused on how political our Justice Department has become – they’re making decisions on a political basis, we’re going to look at all that,” Jordan said in a November news conference. “We’re concerned about anything that is being done in a political fashion at the Justice Department.”

Trump has previewed other defenses to the documents investigation, including claims that he declassified the materials and misrepresentations about other presidents’ post-White House record-keeping. He has repeatedly referenced George H.W. Bush’s storing of documents in a Chinese restaurant and bowling alley, which the National Archives has said is not true, and also a court decision about Bill Clinton’s interview tapes that at one point were held in a sock drawer.

“Under the Presidential Records Act and the very well established Clinton Socks Case, the raid of Mar-a-Lago by the FBI, and the taking of documents and many other items, was ILLEGAL,” Trump said Friday on Truth Social. “Everything should be returned, at once!”