Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is sworn-in via teleconference to testify on the FBI's Russia investigation, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times) Photograph:( The New York Times )
The hearing, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of President Donald Trump’s, was a recounting of perceived injustices that the president and his supporters have amplified over the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia
Senate Republicans rehashed unproven allegations of corruption and bias at the FBI on Tuesday, attacking the bureau’s former acting director Andrew McCabe during a contentious Judiciary Committee hearing.
The hearing, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of President Donald Trump’s, was a recounting of perceived injustices that the president and his supporters have amplified over the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. They included the botched applications to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, the treatment of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and a notorious dossier about purported Trump-Russia links.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas accused the FBI of going “rogue,” while Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said the bureau had a “culture of corruption and cover-up.” Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri described the investigation as the “biggest scandal in the history of the FBI.”
McCabe repeatedly rejected Republican claims that the FBI’s actions were politically motivated.
“Let me be very clear: We didn’t open a case because we liked one candidate or didn’t like the other one,” he said in his opening statement. “We didn’t open a case because we intended to stage a coup or overthrow the government.”
McCabe, who testified remotely because of the pandemic, acknowledged serious FBI mistakes in the Page wiretap applications, one of which he signed. He said he would not have approved it knowing what he has learned since. “We’re all responsible for the work that went into that FISA,” McCabe said.
A Justice Department inspector general report issued in December found egregious errors and omissions in the applications to wiretap Page in the months after he left the Trump campaign, based on investigators’ suspicions about his ties to Russia.
Republicans pressed McCabe about who at the FBI was to blame for the problems. They wrongly insisted that no one had been held responsible; the inspector general’s report did assign blame, singling out an FBI agent assigned as “primarily responsible for some of the most significant errors and omissions.”
The FBI director, Christopher Wray, has said line-level employees who played a role in the Page wiretap applications were referred to the bureau’s office of professional responsibility, its disciplinary arm.
The inspector general report also found that the FBI had sufficient reason to open the Russia investigation and that investigators acted without political bias in doing so.
Democrats on the committee made clear they had little patience for Graham’s inquiry, believing it was a waste of time as they accused Attorney General William Barr of politicizing the Justice Department.
“This is a last-ditch, desperate undertaking to deal with President Trump’s grievances about that election,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., accusing the Republican-led committee of holding another “partisan hearing to advance President Trump’s theories.”
Before the hearing started, Trump took aim at McCabe, a frequent target. “Republicans, don’t let Andrew McCabe continue to get away with totally criminal activity,” the president wrote on Twitter. “What he did should never be allowed to happen to our Country again. FIGHT FOR JUSTICE!”
During the hearing, Graham repeatedly accused the FBI of treating Trump unfairly, saying he should have been warned about Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election on his behalf.
Graham pointed to a recently declassified document of unverified information that suggested that Russian intelligence had acquired information that Hillary Clinton had approved a plan for her 2016 campaign to “stir up a scandal” against Trump by tying him to the Russian hackers who had broken into Democratic servers.
Though Trump’s allies have promoted the document, other officials rejected its information after evaluating it, including the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee.
McCabe said he had never seen the document before and it was not clear to him that the information alluded to criminal conduct.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former federal prosecutor, defended the FBI for not investigating the claim, noting that even information related to a possible Clinton campaign strategy did not amount to a crime but rather to typical politics.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also brought up reports that advisers to President-elect Joe Biden were talking to foreign leaders and compared that to the FBI's scrutiny of Flynn in connection with his December 2016 calls with the Russian ambassador during Trump’s transition.
Cruz demanded to know whether Biden and his team were violating the Logan Act, a 1799 statute that says it is a crime for a private citizen to interfere with diplomatic relations between the United States and foreign governments. Cruz eventually pointed out that the Logan Act is widely considered to be unconstitutional, saying that Biden was therefore not violating it but that it was illegitimate to “go after” Flynn for the same thing.
In a heated exchange with Cruz, who repeatedly cut him off, McCabe said that “there were no discussions of the Logan Act” regarding Flynn, leading Cruz to suggest that he might be committing perjury. But permitted to complete his answer, McCabe clarified that agents opened the counterintelligence investigation into Flynn based on something else — a suspicion that he might be a conduit between the campaign and Russia.
Notes released in connection with the Justice Department’s attempt to drop the prosecution of Flynn, despite his guilty plea for lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, have shown that there were discussions of the Logan Act in 2017.
In addition, on Tuesday a federal judge unsealed a set of search warrants in connection with the Flynn case in response to a news media request. They showed that by September 2017, when the bureau and Mueller’s office sought access to devices and email accounts from the Trump transition, it cited the Logan Act and false statements to a judge.
“The FBI is investigating whether Flynn corresponded with foreign government officials without the authority of the United States, with intent to influence the conduct of foreign governments, in violation of” the Logan Act, “and whether Flynn made materially false statements and omitted material facts to the FBI regarding his communications with those foreign government officials,” it said.
At the end of the hearing, Graham brushed off the complaints by Democrats that his investigation was pointless. “We are going to keep digging,” he said.