GOP presses ahead after election with Russia probe review

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Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., questions former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, on a probe of the FBI's Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump may have lost his bid for reelection, but that hasn’t stopped Senate Republicans from pressing forward with their politically charged probe of the FBI’s Russia investigation.

The latest burst of activity came Tuesday when the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee grilled former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe about an investigation that was begun even before the 2016 presidential election.

The hearing made clear that the election results have not cooled the Republican determination to continue congressional investigations that have been cheered on by Trump, who tweeted an attack on McCabe just minutes after the hearing began. Though most congressional Republicans haven't acknowledged Trump’s loss, the Russia probe and similar political inquiries in line with Trump's interests give them continued lines of attack if they keep control of the Senate with Democrat Joe Biden in the White House.

Democrats lamented that the committee was occupied by events from four years ago and focusing not on last week's election but rather the one from 2016.

“This is a last ditch, desperate undertaking to deal with President Trump’s grievances about that election,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said of the hearing.

Democrats suggested that the committee's time would be better spent discussing a new memo from Attorney General William Barr that authorized prosecutors to pursue any “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities, if they exist, before the election is certified, even though there is no evidence of widespread fraud.

“This kind of scare-mongering is no substitute for the truth,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “The fact is the votes have been counted and some are being counted, and they have shown and will continue to confirm that former Vice President Biden is in fact our president-elect.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Judiciary Committee chairman, repeated many of the familiar attacks on the investigation into ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia. Those include pejorative text messages about Trump sent by former FBI employees who were involved in the Russia investigation, mistakes and omissions in applications to secretly wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser and the FBI questioning of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, rejected the Democrats’ characterization, describing mistakes in the Russia investigation as “maybe the biggest scandal in the history of the FBI.”

“We’re looking at the use of the FBI to interfere in a presidential election," he said.

Most of the criticism of the Russia investigation has centered on flaws in applications to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Those mistakes were significant, and an FBI lawyer earlier this year pleaded guilty to altering an email related to the surveillance of Page. Even so, a Justice Department inspector general report from last year concluded that the Russia investigation was opened for a valid and legitimate purpose. The watchdog did not find evidence of partisan bias.

McCabe on Tuesday conceded errors, including in the surveillance applications targeting Page. The FBI has since taken steps to improve the accuracy of its applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and McCabe, like other former FBI and Justice Department officials who have previously testified, said that he would not have signed off on the Page warrant application had he known of the problems.

But he defended the decision to open the Russia investigation, which was based on information that a Trump campaign adviser may have had inside information that Russia had dirt on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of stolen emails.

The investigation was not opened because the FBI opposed a particular candidate or “because we intended to stage a coup or overthrow the government,” allegations frequently raised by Trump and some of his supporters, McCabe said.

Instead, he added, “We opened a case to find out how the Russians might be undermining our elections. We opened a case because it was our obligation — our duty — to do so. We did our job.”

McCabe was the fourth former law enforcement official to appear before the committee. The others were former FBI Director James Comey and Rod Rosenstein and Sally Yates, who both served as deputy attorney general.

McCabe became acting director after the firing of Comey in May 2017.

He was later fired from the bureau after allegations from the Justice Department inspector general that he had misled investigators about his role in an October 2016 disclosure to the news media. McCabe on Tuesday called the watchdog investigation “deeply flawed” and unfair, and pointed out that he is suing. The Justice Department ultimately did not bring charges against McCabe.

Minutes after the hearing began, Trump went on Twitter to implore Republicans not to let McCabe get away with unspecified “totally criminal activity. What he did should never be allowed to happen to our Country again. FIGHT FOR JUSTICE!"