Republicans mounted a counterattack this week against the drumbeat from multiple investigations into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election, seizing on revelations of Democratic ties to a now-famous dossier on Donald Trump’s alleged Russian connections to cast doubt on the probes.
In a dizzying 24 hours, congressional Republicans announced two investigations into old controversies that centered on 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. And the news that Clinton’s camp helped fund the research behind the disputed dossier sent Trump allies into a fury — and accelerated the rising tensions on Capitol Hill.
It’s a tactical shift that has put Republicans on offense, with the vocal support of the president, and has strained the last vestiges of bipartisan comity that congressional investigators have worked to salvage as they attempt to get to the bottom of Russian misdeeds during the 2016 election and prevent future attacks.
The Republican National Committee latched on to the report Tuesday about Clinton’s connection, saying the dossier “served as a springboard” to the investigations by three congressional committees and a special counsel into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, a Republican, said the news suggested Clinton, not Trump, had colluded with the Russians to affect the election.
The president’s eldest son was active on Twitter, highlighting conservative musings about shutting down special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling. And House Speaker Paul Ryan, in an interview with Reuters, accused the FBI of “stonewalling” and “foot-dragging” to avoid disclosing how it used the document in its own probe.
“I understand they paid a tremendous amount of money,” Trump said of Democrats on Wednesday. “And Hillary Clinton always denied it. The Democrats always denied it…They’re embarrassed by it. But I think it’s a disgrace. It’s a very sad commentary on politics in this country.”
Democrats said the revelations about who paid for the dossier were a sideshow that should not distract investigators from the question of whether its allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia are true. Opposition research is a standard feature of campaigns, they pointed out, and it has been public for much of this year that the research that became the dossier was funded first by a still-unknown Republican and later by supporters of Clinton, though her campaign’s role became clear only this week.
Amid the GOP tactical shift, Democrats have retreated to their corner as well and worked to keep the discussion of potential Russian collusion at the forefront of their probes. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) accused Republicans of dropping “partisan smoke bombs to disrupt and discredit the Russia investigation.”
And while the dossier, which the FBI also received, likely played a role in the Trump investigations, Democrats have emphasized that it was not the reason Mueller was named special counsel. He was appointed after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, which the president said at the time he did out of frustration with that agency’s Russia investigation.
“Look at how they’re switching attention,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y), pointing to the two Clinton-focused investigations launched by his Republican colleagues this week. “They’re using this for the White House to divert attention from the real issue, which is Trump campaign collusion with the Russians.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has often clashed with Trump and who passed the dossier to Comey after receiving it last year, said even after learning about Clinton’s role in its production, he still believes the FBI needs to look into the allegations.
“I received the document, I looked at it, I thought that it ought to be seen by the proper authorities and I took it immediately over to Mr. Comey,” McCain said on Wednesday. “Who else was involved or whatever else players there were, it was my duty to give it to him and not to do anything else with it.”
The fight over the dossier exploded just as GOP-led committees began a series of new probes into Clinton’s time as secretary of state and the actions of the Obama administration.
On Tuesday, Republicans on the Oversight Committee and House Judiciary Committee launched a joint probe of the FBI’s handling of Clinton’s use of a private email account as secretary of state, a favorite Republican talking point during the 2016 campaign. Last year, it was Democrats who were incensed that Comey exonerated Clinton — but issued a stinging assessment of her conduct — only to briefly reopen the investigation days before Election Day. Republicans, though, have ramped up their own outrage at Comey’s handling of the investigation, including reports that he may have drafted a statement exonerating Clinton weeks before he interviewed her.
“The more we learn about the actions taken by the Justice Department and FBI in 2016, the more questions we and the American people have,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), reiterating an earlier call for a special counsel to be appointed in the Comey matter. “Some of this information has come to light just in the past couple of months.”
On the same day GOP lawmakers announced the FBI probe, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and House Oversight Committee announced they would revisit Clinton’s role in a years-old uranium deal with Russia that Trump labeled on Wednesday as “Watergate, modern age.”
He egged on lawmakers to pursue the issue last week after reports indicated that the uranium deal was approved by a group of agencies including the Clinton-led State Department at the same time the FBI was looking into a widespread Russian bribery plot. It does not appear Clinton herself was involved in approving the deal.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had already launched a probe into the uranium deal a week earlier, and the tension on that panel has risen steadily, threatening nascent attempts to pursue its own Russia investigation.
The panel’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has tussled at times with Fusion GPS, the firm that produced the dossier, said he thought it was possible to dig into the origin of the Trump documents while also looking at potential collusion with Russia.
“Russia’s involved in all of it,” Grassley said.
The strain has been evident longest, however, on the House Intelligence Committee, where Republicans have spent months pursuing the backstory behind the disputed intelligence dossier. Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) recently subpoenaed Fusion GPS and attempted to compel company leaders to reveal who funded their project. He even went to court to try to procure the company’s bank records.
With his panel already embroiled in partisan bickering, Nunes on Tuesday joined the investigation into the seven-year-old uranium deal. He said it was necessitated by new reports suggesting that at the time the deal was approved, the FBI was investigating an array of alleged activities including bribery, extortion and kickbacks by Russian energy officials. Nunes said the White House had no role in his decision to launch the investigation.
“We’re not going to jump to any conclusions,” he said.
Still, Trump had spent months calling for congressional investigators to pursue the uranium deal. “Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia,” he tweeted on March 27.
After the new reports about the FBI’s involvement, Trump tweeted on Oct. 19: “Uranium deal to Russia, with Clinton help and Obama Administration knowledge, is the biggest story that Fake Media doesn’t want to follow!”
Democrats dismissed the House’s uranium-deal investigation, as they have the other recent Republican efforts, as more White House-directed attempts to distract from the Russia probes.
“Acting on the urging of the President who has repeatedly denied the intelligence agencies’ conclusions regarding Russian involvement in our election, they are designed to distract attention and pursue the President’s preferred goal — attacking Clinton and Obama,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, said in a statement.
Elana Schor contributed to this report.
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