While Democrats vow to investigate the subpoenas, the GOP is almost unified in its response: The government should investigate leaks of classified information, even if that sweeps up members of the opposite political party — as long as it is within the confines of the law. And they say that applies to Democratic presidents, too.
“If you’re leaking, I don’t care what your motives are or who you are, you should be investigated for that — whether you’re a friend of the president or not a friend of the president,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “I would hope I’d say the same thing about President Biden. If he’s investigating Devin Nunes and he has reason to, then let the investigation go forward.”
Republicans want to let the Justice Department’s internal watchdog finish its work, with House GOP Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) last week affirming the importance of an outside conclusion on “whether there was any overreach.”
The Justice Department’s hunt to find the source of leaks related to the probe of Trump’s ties to Russia swept up at least three prominent figures whom the former president considered his political opponents, including House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who sits on that panel. The leak hunt subpoenas, first reported by The New York Times this month, have sparked a firestorm as Democrats call for testimony on whether Trump may have abused his power.
“What the administration did, the Justice Department, the leadership of the former President goes even beyond Richard Nixon,” Pelosi said on CNN last week.
One of the only Republicans joining her in criticizing the Trump Justice Department’s behavior is himself under the scrutiny of a federal sex trafficking investigation.
“DOJ has a very nasty tendency to target its critics, Republican and Democrat,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said in a statement earlier this month. “I stand against all of it, no matter how much I personally dislike Schiff.”
No GOP lawmakers have acknowledged that their data was swept up into the probe.
Several, such as Stewart and Cheney, made clear that no president should use the powers of government strictly to go after political enemies. But the lack of sympathy among House Intelligence Committee Republicans for Schiff and Swalwell’s predicament recalls the bitter polarization that enveloped the panel in 2017 as it investigated whether members of the Trump campaign or the candidate himself sought to tip the scales of the election.
It was also then, Republicans claim, that the committee began leaking like a sieve — a trend they say continued through House Democrats’ first impeachment inquiry into Trump’s contacts with Ukraine in 2019.
“There was literally nothing sacred in that room,” said former Rep. Tom Rooney, of Florida, who served as a senior Republican on the panel during the Russia probe before retiring in 2018.
The tension continued into 2019, when the GOP blamed Schiff for sweeping up the phone records of California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, during Trump’s first impeachment. A committee spokesperson at the time denied that investigators had subpoenaed call records for any member of Congress or reporter.
That experience left Republicans committed to probing leaks of classified information.
“Anybody who’s alleged to leak information will get investigated, whether that’s law enforcement, whether that’s a member of Congress. Nobody’s above the law,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI special agent and member of the Intelligence Committee.
The current turbulence over Trump-era subpoenas leaves many unanswered questions, including the number of people whose communications data were mined, whether investigators alerted supervisors after the names of lawmakers surfaced in the records obtained through subpoena and if other companies were subpoenaed for this information as part of the hunt.
Under both Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr, Trump’s Justice Department aggressively pursued leak investigations. Another reported target was former White House counsel Don McGahn, who provided key testimony in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Multiple journalists were also targeted.
Democrats are pushing forward full-throttle on investigations, calling to hear from Barr and Sessions — who have both denied knowledge about these secret subpoenas — as well as other Trump administration officials, such as former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“These are gross abuses of the independence of the Justice Department, and we don’t know how far they run,” Schiff said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. ”And our new Attorney General has to find out.”
And as skeptical as they are of those Democratic probes, multiple Republicans acknowledged that if the situation were reversed — with the Biden administration investigating their party’s House Intelligence Committee members — conservatives would be outraged.
“If we applied one standard for one administration and a different standard for another — one side or the other is going to be upset. I think that’s probably just human nature. Well, it’s certainly D.C. nature,” said Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), a member of the Intelligence panel.
“I think there’s a politicization of the Intelligence Committee in the House, unfortunately.”
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.