Top Republicans are moving to block a Senate inquiry into the Trump justice department’s secret seizure of data from Democrats to hunt down leaks of classified information, fearing a close investigation could damage the former president.
Trump, who is facing a mounting crisis of legal problems and political criticism, still wields huge power among Republicans, and has hinted recently at a return run for the White House.
In fiery remarks, the Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, criticized the rapidly expanding congressional inquiries as unnecessary and accused Democrats of embarking on “politically motivated investigations”.
“I am confident that the existing inquiry will uncover the truth,” said McConnell. “There is no need for a partisan circus here in Congress.”
The forceful pushback from McConnell shows his alarm about the latest aggressive move by Democrats to engage in retrospective oversight that could expose Trump for misusing the vast power of the federal government to pursue his political enemies.
It also means Republicans are certain to lock arms to block subpoenas against Trump justice department officials, including former attorneys general Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions. Democrats need at least one Republican member for subpoenas because of the even split between Democrats and Republicans on the panel.
Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate judiciary committee, suggested he would offer no such support. “Investigations into members of Congress and staff are nothing new, especially for classified leaks,” he said.
The Republican criticism came as Democrats have stepped up investigations into the justice department for secretly seizing in 2018 data belonging to two Democrats on the House intelligence committee – and some of Trump’s fiercest critics.
In the Senate, the judiciary committee chair, Dick Durbin, demanded in a letter that the attorney general, Merrick Garland, deliver a briefing and respond to a raft of questions into the seizures by 28 June. And the House judiciary committee chair, Jerry Nadler, said his panel would launch an investigation into the “coordinated effort by the Trump administration to target President Trump’s political opposition” as he weighed hauling in Barr and Sessions.
The parallel investigations showed Democrats’ determination to seize the momentum, even as Republicans started rallying in opposition – for largely the same reasons that governed their motivation to sink a 9/11-style commission to examine the Capitol attack.
Democrats also said that they would press ahead with their investigations concurrently with the justice department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, whose office last week opened a separate inquiry.
“I do think there has to be a congressional role to supplement whatever DoJ doesn’t turn over,” the congressman Eric Swalwell, one of the two House Democrats who had his records seized, told the Guardian.
But in only requesting Garland’s appearance before the Senate judiciary committee – and not Barr or Sessions – Democrats revealed the power Senate Republicans wield to obstruct measures they fear could anger Trump and his base ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
The political roadblocks being laid down by Senate Republicans mean the most meaningful congressional investigation into the Trump justice department targeting Democrats is likely to come from the House judiciary committee.
On account of Democrats’ majority in the House, Nadler does not suffer from the same problems besetting his colleagues in the Senate, and retains the ability to subpoena Barr and Sessions without Republican support.
The judiciary committee did not outline concrete steps for their investigation. But Nadler intends to keep the threat of subpoenas hanging over the Trump attorneys general as he ratchets up pressure over the coming weeks, said a source familiar with the matter.
The twin investigations by House and Senate Democrats follow the referral from the deputy attorney general, Lisa Mascaro, to the inspector general to launch a review, according to a senior justice department official.
The inspector general probe came after the New York Times reported that the Trump administration used grand jury subpoenas to force Apple and one other service provider to turn over data tied to Democrats on the House intelligence committee.
Although investigations into leaks of classified information are routine, the use of subpoenas to extract data on accounts belonging to serving members of Congress is near-unprecedented outside corruption investigations.
Justice department investigators gained access to, among others, the records of Adam Schiff, then the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee and now its chairman; Swalwell; and the family members of lawmakers and aides.