Suspicion is mounting about Donald Trump’s ties to Russian officials and business interests, as well as possible links between his campaign and the Russian hacking of U.S. political organizations. But GOP leaders have refused to support efforts by Democrats to investigate any possible Trump-Russia connections, which have been raised in news reports and closed-door intelligence briefings. And without their support, Democrats, as the minority in both chambers of Congress, cannot issue subpoenas to potential witnesses and have less leverage to probe Trump.
Privately, Republican congressional staff told The Daily Beast that Trump and his aides’ connections to Russian officials and businesses interests haven’t gone unnoticed and are concerning. And GOP lawmakers have reviewed Democrats’ written requests to the FBI that it investigate Trump before they were made public.
But the lawmakers in both chambers have declined to sign on to them. Republicans have no appetite to launch inquiries into their party’s presidential nominee, and they continue to believe the FBI flubbed its investigation into Clinton and her aides, who should have been charged with mishandling government secrets, the staffers said.
Instead Republican lawmakers appear far more interested in probing Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, nearly three months after the Justice Department declined to press charges against her or her aides. FBI Director James Comey has been called to testify to Congress three times about the email investigation, and Republicans have launched a separate inquiry into whether the former secretary of State committed perjury when she testified before Congress about her unorthodox communications system.
As a result, Clinton is likely to face relentless grilling on Capitol Hill from now until Election Day, but Trump can rest assured that his fellow partisans will go easy on him.
Trump has made no secret of his affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin and came to his defense in the first presidential debate this week when he dismissed the assertion that Russian government hackers were behind intrusions at the Democratic National Committee. Although it’s practically the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that the Kremlin is seeking to undermine the presidential election through cyberattacks and leaks, Trump said, “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China, it could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
Democrats are left shaking their heads.
“I can’t say that I was surprised to hear Trump say that because he has been such an apologist for the Kremlin,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast. “It’s once again great propaganda for Putin.
“He has no idea the kind of damage that he does,” Schiff said of Trump. “He’s a human wrecking ball,” the lawmaker said, noting that the leader of Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, endorsed Trump’s assertion that Clinton and Barack Obama co-founded ISIS.
Democrats have implored the FBI to look deeper into Trump’s dealings with Russia and those of his aides, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who worked for the pro-Russian government of Ukraine, and Trump foreign-policy adviser Carter Page, who met with Russian government officials in July, including one believed to be connected to the gathering of information about the upcoming U.S. election, according to Yahoo News.
But GOP lawmakers won’t sign on to the Democrats’ requests.
At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) complained that his Republican colleagues weren’t pressing Comey on the Trump campaign. “Instead, I believe that the focus of this hearing will be more of the same: an attack on you, and your team at the Department of Justice, for declining to recommend criminal charges against Secretary Hillary Clinton,” Conyers said.
In the past month, the top Democrats on four House committees—including those that have most strongly pursued questions about Clinton’s email—have written to the FBI director asking him to investigate whether connections between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government “may have contributed” to hacks against the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations (PDF).
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, asked the FBI to investigate, among other things, the meetings between Russian officials and Page. Reid was prompted to write to Comey after an intelligence briefing about the hacks on the DNC and Russian efforts to interfere with the election, two individuals with knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast. (Page denies the meetings ever happened.)
Republican leaders’ decision not to investigate Trump represents an ironic turn for a party that only four years ago was being criticized for being too hawkish on Russia. Now, it’s Democrats who are being accused of using “McCarthyite” tactics.
Of course, there’s no great love for Russia and Putin in the Washington GOP establishment. House Speaker Paul Ryan has called the Russian president a “devious thug.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says Putin is a “dictator” and that he personally disagrees with Trump’s praise of Putin as a strong leader.
But Chaffetz—who has doggedly investigated whether Clinton jeopardized national security through her use of a private email server, and has reminded witnesses that his committee enjoys a broad writ to investigate all sorts of matters—maintains there’s nothing for the committee to investigate when it comes to Trump. Chaffetz has argued that the nominee isn’t a federal employee, and that his campaign staffers’ purported involvement in Russian affairs doesn’t have a clear link to matters that concern the oversight committee, like Clinton’s possible mishandling of classified information does.
“His position hasn’t changed,” Chaffetz’s spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Obviously, Democrats will get no help from fellow lawmakers in their pursuit of Trump. But it’s not clear whether the FBI is investigating the GOP nominee.
Comey, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee this week, refused to confirm or deny if the bureau has taken Democrats up on their requests, noting that as a matter of policy the FBI doesn’t comment on its own investigations.
That didn’t stop Democrats from trying to draw him in.
In a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this week, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) pressed the director on whether the FBI would investigate an American citizen who met with senior Russian government officials for a possible violation of the Logan Act, which bars private individuals from conducting foreign policy on behalf of the United States. Deutch didn’t initially mention Page, but Democrats want to know if he made promises to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia in a future Trump administration when Page was in Moscow last summer.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to answer that,” Comey said. “That gets too close to confirming or denying whether we have an investigation. Seems too close to real life, so I’m not going to comment.”
Remarks like that came tantalizingly close to at least suggesting the FBI might be looking into Trump. But it also prompted Democrats to accuse the law-enforcement agency of a double standard when it comes to Trump versus Clinton.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) noted that the FBI not only publicly confirmed its investigation of Clinton’s email but publicly released interview notes and its final report to the Justice Department recommending that she and her aides face no charges.
Comey insisted the Clinton investigation was an “extraordinary” case, and that considering the high-profile nature of the investigation, it was important that the FBI be more transparent than usual.
Nadler wondered why the same wasn’t true for the Republican nominee for president.
“It is a dangerous violation of federal law if Donald Trump’s adviser Carter Page is engaging in freelance negotiations with Russia,” Nadler said.
Referring to his Republican colleagues, Nadler said, “I assume we all agree the allegations are very serious.”
It’s not clear that they do.