In 1984, a junior Republican senator named Chuck Grassley infuriated his party elders by slapping a contempt of Congress citation on Ronald Reagan’s attorney general after he declined to turn over documents.
More than three decades later, Grassley’s reputation as a zealous investigator who can rankle administrations of both parties could be a quiet yet potent threat to President Donald Trump, whose associates are under scrutiny in the unfurling investigations over whether they colluded with Moscow in the presidential campaign.
Now at the helm of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley is swinging his powerful gavel into the Russia probes by his decision to investigate the circumstances behind the firing of former FBI director James Comey — a pursuit that promises to be uncomfortable, at best, for the Trump administration.
In an interview with POLITICO Wednesday in his Capitol office, Grassley was the most definitive yet that his committee’s probe will examine issues of obstruction of justice.
“I don’t want to say for sure. But I don’t know how you can avoid it,” Grassley said regarding questions of obstruction of justice in his investigation. “Because the FBI was investigating it before there was a special counsel.”
The Iowa senator, who took charge of the Judiciary panel two years ago, has been hammering out the parameters of an investigation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on probing Comey’s dismissal, as well as potential political interference at the Justice Department under the Obama administration.
Grassley and Feinstein, along with two other key senators in the Russia probe, met with special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday.
But other Republicans have stressed that adding another layer to the stack of congressional probes is duplicative, One, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) — who is juggling both the Intelligence Committee probe and Judiciary’s efforts — has warned that the multiple investigations were a “train wreck waiting to happen."
But that hasn’t deterred Grassley, who seems to get more riled up over the government’s refusal to respond to his inquiries than with any other issue.
“It fits in with the way we do oversight,” Grassley said of his decision last week to investigate Comey’s firing, more than a month after the surprise dismissal. He’s undaunted by the thought of provoking Trump: “I can’t look at whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat. My constitutional responsibility of oversight stays the same.”
Ever since his 1980s standoff with the Reagan administration — when Grassley, acting as head of an obscure Judiciary subcommittee on administrative practice and procedure — cited Attorney General William French Smith for contempt for failing to provide records Grassley subpoenaed on waste by military contractors, the Iowa Republican has made oversight his trademark project.
Grassley’s reputation for fierce independence came under assault by Democrats last year when he played a starring role in the GOP’s decision to ignore the nomination of Merrick Garland — a risky political calculation for Republicans that ended ultimately paid off with the confirmation of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.
But now Democrats are praising Grassley’s efforts to probe the Trump administration — he wryly notes that he doesn’t “get the same degree of cooperation [from Democrats] as when we have a Republican president” — even as some powerful GOP senators still find it unnecessary.
“I think he’s been pushed into it,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Though Hatch said “of course” it was appropriate for Judiciary to investigate, he added: “There’s no obstruction. That’s the problem.”
Other Republican senators were more supportive.
“You don’t want to plow old ground that other committees have done, but you got to assert jurisdiction,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another Judiciary Committee member. “I’m glad he is.”
Grassley and Feinstein have a number of issues they have to navigate in framing their joint investigation. One key question is whether they will subpoena Comey to testify before the Judiciary Committee, which Grassley said “there is a real interest” to do. The two are still negotiating over when to haul in Attorney General Jeff Sessions for its usual DOJ oversight hearing. And while the committee may look into matters of obstruction of justice, the panel itself cannot prosecute crimes.
But the two senators at least agree on the general scope of their investigation — a process that by all accounts, has proceeded smoothly so far without the partisan hiccups that have tarnished other congressional Russia probes.
“He’s a very direct, very honest man,” Feinstein said of Grassley. “So for me, that makes it very easy. He says what he thinks and I appreciate that.”
Other Democrats, particularly those who have been aggressive in trying to pursue investigations against Trump, are more cautious in their praise.
“I think the fact that the chairman is willing to have that process and at least have a conversation about what the Judiciary Committee might look at is a good step,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. “What that produces, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Grassley and Feinstein, along with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Whitehouse, met with Mueller on Wednesday amid some concerns that the Judiciary investigation and Mueller’s probe may step on each other’s toes. Cornyn said he recommended the meeting.
“There’s the Intelligence Committee, there’s the Judiciary Committee and there’s the special counsel,” Cornyn said in an interview this week. “I would think that we would all want to take special care not to get in the way to trip up the special counsel.” (For his part, the chairman of the intelligence panel — Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina — said he had no issue with Grassley’s probe: “It shouldn’t affect me because obstruction of justice is not in our lane.”)
Republican skittishness about Grassley’s efforts on Russia has been stoked by the fact that during the five months since Trump’s inauguration, the Judiciary chairman has already clashed with the administration on several fronts where he contends officials are stonewalling Hill oversight.
In March, he held up the confirmation of now-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein until Comey gave Judiciary Committee members a briefing on the status of the Russia probe.
Earlier this month, Grassley unleashed fury over a DOJ opinion contending that agencies can ignore information requests from lawmakers unless they are committee chairs.
“It’s just wrong. It violates the Constitution,” Grassley said Wednesday.
And just last week, Grassley held up a vote on the confirmation of former Sessions aide Stephen Boyd to be DOJ’s legislative liaison. The chairman said he had 16 oversight letters that the department never answered and Boyd’s nomination will be on ice until the responses are received. Grassley even invited other senators to pile on, indicating that Boyd won’t be going anywhere until all those requests — many dating to the Obama era — are resolved.
An exasperated Grassley noted that nominees promise to be responsive to Congress, but rarely are. “They always say, ‘Yes,’ and they end up being liars,” he complained during the interview.
“Over the years, he has been unpredictable,” noted University of Baltimore Law School Dean Ronald Weich, a DOJ congressional liaison under Obama. “Senior members of the Senate have a lot of running room in general. He’s an 80-year-old guy who was just re-elected, he’s got the chairmanship. He should not need to kowtow to either the Senate leaders or to the White House.”
Another factor contributing to the unpredictable nature of a Grassley foray into the Comey firing and related aspects of the Russia flap: Grassley’s long-acrimonious relationship with the FBI.
He has clashed with a series of FBI directors, often pillorying agency management for its treatment of whistleblowers in its ranks. Grassley aides have complained for years that they are often stonewalled by the FBI, receiving no responses to their letters and phone calls even though the Judiciary Committee has primary oversight over the law enforcement agency.
Grassley may be pleasing some Democrats at the moment, but based on his track record, he’s not going to go easy on Comey, or for that matter Mueller — another former FBI chief. The chairman downplayed those tensions Wednesday, saying he has “a great deal of respect for the FBI.”
Grassley also signaled that his panel’s probe will likely have to take a back seat, if Mueller asks them to avoid particular areas. “Probably, legally, [he] has a pretty heavy hand,” the chairman said. “I think we have to respect the assignment he’s been given.”
While Democrats are happy with Grassley’s plans to dig into the Comey firing, they’re less thrilled with Grassley’s plan to look at potential issues of political interference at the Obama-era DOJ. Comey testified earlier this month that the conduct of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch prompted him to convene last summer’s extraordinary news conference where he announced that he was not pursuing criminal charges against Hillary Clinton.
“My preference would be to focus on Comey’s firing and obstruction of justice by the Trump administration,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. Asked why not Lynch, he added: “Well, it’s in the rearview mirror at this point.”
Some Democrats remain skeptical that Grassley will do anything of consequence that angers GOP leaders. They note that he marched in lock-step with the party as it blocked Garland.
However, Gorsuch’s very confirmation has given Grassley significant political capital — particularly among dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Many of those people don’t have a particular affinity for Trump to start with, so they may be less aggrieved by the Iowa senator tangling with the White House.
“Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court,” the Judiciary chairman said matter-of-factly Wednesday. “Doesn’t matter what other people think, it’s a fact of life.”
Grassley said no Republican senators have approached him directly to urge him to back down from probing the Comey firing, although he’s seen press reports of some dissension in the ranks. One reason Senate veterans don’t seem to be doing much to try to fend off Grassley’s foray into the Russia morass could be that he doesn’t tend to back down in an oversight battle.
Even if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might prefer Grassley direct his energies elsewhere, trying to get the Judiciary chairman to back off is futile, a former Grassley aide said.
“Certainly, McConnell is smart enough to understand that it would be counterproductive to give Grassley grief about something,” said Dean Zerbe, a former Grassley investigator now with Houston law firm Zerbe Miller Fingeret. “They’re just kicking over an anthill or kicking a wasp nest down.”
While some senators revel in floor debate, coalition-building or the finer points of legislation, issues of oversight tend to be the ones that provoke flashes of passion or even angry outbursts from the normally mild-mannered Iowa native.
Just days before Comey was fired last month, he appeared before the Judiciary Committee. Late in the hearing, Grassley began shouting at Comey over what the chairman said was a pattern of the FBI giving him less information than it makes public under the Freedom of Information Act.
“If I, Chuck Grassley as a private citizen, file a Freedom of Information Act [request] and you give me more information than you’ll give to Senator Chuck Grassley, how do you justify that?” Grassley exclaimed.
“Yeah, it’s a good question,” Comey replied.
“What do you mean it’s a good question? How do you justify that?” Grassley shot back angrily.
“I can’t as I sit here,” Comey added meekly.
The exchange prompted Grassley to let out a cry of Midwestern exasperation: “Egads!”
Grassley worked himself into a similar lather Wednesday when POLITICO asked him about the three-decade-old fight over military contracting that led to the contempt citation for the attorney general. The 83-year-old quickly leaned forward in his chair, raised his voice and launched into a rant about the failure of congressional oversight and the executive branch’s tendency to circle the wagons.
“I don’t think at that time that the Armed Services Committee was doing anything other than just letting the Defense Department do whatever they wanted to do,” Grassley exclaimed. “Back in those days, we had the Justice Department fronting for the Defense Department.”
While it’s hard to see the Trump White House being friendly to another probe into something the president has declared needs no further investigation, Grassley says he’s tried to argue to Trump that keeping a close eye on the federal bureaucracy is consistent with his campaign pledge to “drain the swamp.”
“Every time I get the chance to talk to Trump, I said, you know, I think most people think draining the swamp means getting rid of too many federal employees and starting over again. … As far as I’m concerned it’s got nothing to do with — you can spend less money, you can reorganize government… but it’s the culture of Washington,” Grassley said. “The president has to change the culture of these bureaucracies. That’s what draining the swamp is — from my point of view.”