As House Republicans rage against the FBI and join President Donald Trump’s war on the Justice Department, their counterparts in the Senate are deliberately avoiding the crossfire.
Two prominent House Intelligence Committee members are set for an unprecedented briefing from FBI Director Chris Wray and deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Thursday regarding whether an informant was installed in the Trump campaign. But Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) wasn’t even complaining about his omission before the White House late Wednesday announced a separate meeting on the matter with him, as well as congressional leaders in both parties.
It’s not that GOP senators aren’t interested in potential misconduct by law enforcement officials. But their default is to defend the FBI rank-and-file, not trash its leadership, as House members did at a press conference on Tuesday.
"Unfortunately, the politics over in the House have become the issue. And in the Senate we’ve tried not to become to the issue, we’ve tried to investigate the facts," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who recently gave a speech defending FBI agents in the face of attacks from the House.
Senate Republicans are not dismissive of the FBI informant matter and are still demanding documents from the Justice Department about it. Plus, a trio of Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee quietly asked to attend Thursday’s event, including Cornyn, who serves on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
But Burr and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) have maintained a cooperative bipartisan rapport during the panel’s probe into Russia’s influence on the 2016 elections. And senators don’t want it to devolve into the months-long food fight that the House’s Intelligence Committee has become.
In a sharp contrast to the House’s dueling partisan assessments of the Russia investigation, the Senate panel has released several reports together with sign-off from both parties. And the White House’s plans for a bipartisan briefing after Memorial Day with the intelligence committee’s leaders marked a victory for the upper chamber’s approach.
“There’s a stylistic difference. We’re trying to be able to work through it in a bipartisan way as much as we can,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “It’s important for the country because this is going to be a very contentious investigation … whatever the decision is at the end, we’ve got to be able to say we were together on this.”
The split has House members patting themselves on the back for their more aggressive posture.
"We’ve been leaning forward into this I think a little faster and a little further than the Senate has," said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah).
Whether Senate Republicans are succeeding in their efforts to depoliticize their own investigatory efforts is another question. Senate Republicans have tried to stay above the rhetoric from Trump and his allies, underscoring their support for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into potential collusion with Russia by the president’s allies.
Thursday’s meeting between senior law enforcement officials and House Republicans, however, further tests the Senate GOP’s ability to conduct oversight without blocking and tackling too much for Trump. Many Democrats are clamoring for the inclusion of the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate, as well as their respective intelligence committee leaders — the “Gang of Eight" that often participates in high-level national security briefings.
Among the highly skeptical Democrats is Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a liberal on the Judiciary panel who lamented the lack of transparency surrounding the White House’s involvement in the informant spat. It’s “hard to evaluate what value” GOP senators could add, he said, without Democrats being involved.
“What kind of congressional oversight only involves one party?” Whitehouse asked. Limiting the number of lawmakers privy to such sensitive law enforcement information, he noted, typically involves the Gang of Eight as a matter of custom.
“So if this isn’t traditional oversight, because it’s partisan, then what the hell is it?” Whitehouse added. “Is it just planning and scheming to help the president and obstruct an investigation?”
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 GOP leader, said that having Senate Republicans at the meeting “would probably be a good thing” and suggested that top Democrats in the Gang of Eight should also be involved even before the White House agreed — yet another oblique criticism of the House’s unicameral, partisan approach.
Burr has studiously avoided even commenting on the informant issue, wary of how partisan the issue has become on the other side of the Capitol. He and most other members of his committee are worried about the lasting damage that could come from portraying the FBI as a political enemy and the precedent that will be set from outing a confidential informant in a partisan way.
Asked on Thursday whether his stance on the informant meeting had changed, Burr said in a brief interview that “I’d leave it up to the process.” It’s clear that if he had agreed to attend and leave Warner behind, it could damage their relationship.
Warner warned that he might “start to lose faith and trust in individuals that would attend such a meeting, since this is against any of the traditional procedures and protocols that the intelligence community has used for decades.”
Reminded that some Senate Republicans have sought to attend the meeting, Warner decried “antics driven by these House guys.”
The three GOP senators who requested to attend the Thursday meeting with DOJ and FBI, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Cornyn, had yet to receive a reply as of late Wednesday. Grassley had earlier received a pledge from Rosenstein to get “access to the same information” that the House intelligence panel has received in its ongoing probe of the FBI’s investigative activity ahead of the 2016 election.
“There has to be accountability and oversight by the Congress of how the Department of Justice and the FBI do their work,” Cornyn said on Wednesday. “The idea that they’re going to say what we can see and what we can’t see is offensive.”
Two Democrats on the Judiciary panel, Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, pushed back Wednesday with a plea for DOJ to cancel the meeting. They cited the “danger of illegal disclosure potentially catastrophic to confidential sources and operations.”
Similarly, Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, an intelligence committee member, highlighted the risks of such a meeting.
“It becomes very dicey when you’re talking about a confidential FBI informant,” she said. “I can understand [Burr and Warner’s] reservations.”
A top House GOP ally of Trump’s, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, told reporters that he doesn’t expect DOJ to disclose the informant-related documents that the president’s supporters have pushed for access to.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another Intelligence member, said he‘s not concerned with the Justice Department’s actions and believes the department was targeting people claiming to be “agents of a foreign government … they were targeting those individuals, not the campaign.”
“On this particular case, if something was done inappropriate, we should know about it,” Rubio said. “But that hasn’t been my sense up to now.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.