What to Know About Lindsey Graham's Investigation Into the Russia Investigation

Lindsey Graham
U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) arrives for a hearing examining issues facing prisons and jails during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on Capitol Hill June 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Erin Scott/Pool/Getty

Republicans on two key Senate committees are expected to grant their respective chairmen wide-ranging authority to investigate the origins of the FBI's Russia probe, which may also involve compelling the testimony of former Obama administration officials.

The votes, set to occur Thursday morning, will provide Senators Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson, the chairmen of the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, respectively, the power to issue subpoenas for documents related to "Crossfire Hurricane," the FBI's counterintelligence probe that was eventually folded into a special counsel's investigation.

The votes will also authorize Graham and Johnson to subpoena the testimony of dozens of individuals connected to the Russia inquiry, including senior Obama administration figures such as Loretta Lynch, the former attorney general, James Comey, the former FBI director whose ouster was central to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and Susan Rice, the former national security advisor.

Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns that the Republican-led look-back investigations into the Russia probe are little more than political theater. Senator Diane Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, worried that testimony from Obama administration officials would be sought to undermine the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential race.

"This motion grants the chair unbridled authority to go after Obama-era officials in order to bolster the president's conspiracy theories and denigrate the president's political rival, Joe Biden," Feinstein said in a previous statement. "The committee should not conduct politically-motivated investigations designed to attack or help any presidential candidate, period."

Graham's probe kicked off in earnest on Wednesday when the Judiciary Committee heard the testimony of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller. Rosenstein, a deeply contested character in the Russia saga, was responsible for overseeing Mueller's work and has appeared at many critical junctures during the course of the investigation.

A letter he authored in 2017 was used to justify the White House's dismissal of Comey, and Rosenstein has since publicly defended his recommendation to jettison the then-director over the handling of the bureau's Clinton email probe. However, Comey's deputy at the time would later allege that President Donald Trump "ordered" Rosenstein to draft the memo. Trump went on to reveal that he had Russia on the mind when he fired Comey.

A "scope memo" authored by Rosenstein in August 2017 that defined the special counsel's mandate was obtained and publicly released in a less-redacted form by Graham in May. That memo revealed that Mueller's remit extended farther than was known at the time, including the investigation of specific individuals for matters not directly related to Russian interference.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney—a sometime critic, sometime defender of these highly partisan probes—said Wednesday he was concerned about the direction the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on which he sits, was headed with the subpoenas.

But he said Johnson tailored the requested subpoena power in a way that was satisfactory.

"I requested a number of adjustments made. He has made those adjustments," Romney said. "It's not, in my opinion, the appropriate priority for the committee, but he sets the agenda. And there was wrongdoing identified by the inspector general, so I will support it."

Romney explained that his "adjustments" were to ensure "inspectors general were not subpoenaed, nor their documents."

Mitt Romney
U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) leaves after a vote at the U.S. Capitol May 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty

However, the final draft subpoena still includes authorization to obtain certain documents from the inspectors general at the Department of Justice and the General Services Administration, which helps coordinate the transition between administrations.

The wrongdoing identified by Romney related to a key point of contention in the dueling Russia narratives. The Department of Justice inspector general published a report in December finding that FBI agents committed "serious performance failures" in their applications to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign advisor.

The report alleged "basic and fundamental errors" in the process of applying for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, which has since become central to the president's numerous allegations of "spying" and has emerged as a focus of the congressional reviews.

The Department of Justice, under the auspices of the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, is conducting a similar, albeit criminal, probe into the origins of the Russia investigation. Attorney General Bill Barr has said he does not expect his department's review to touch on Biden or former President Barack Obama.

Johnson's subpoena, if approved, will also authorize a deeper search for records related to the "unmasking" of Trump associates caught up in federal surveillance activities. His committee was recently provided a declassified document identifying Obama administration officials who sought to "unmask" Michael Flynn, later Trump's short-lived national security advisor.

Although this has spun into a frenzied controversy in its own right, intelligence experts caution that "unmasking," the process of identifying Americans who appear incidentally in intelligence collections, is routine and thousands of such requests are made each year.

Newsweek congressional reporter Ramsey Touchberry contributed to this report.

What to Know About Lindsey Graham's Investigation Into the Russia Investigation | U.S.