The Justice Department referral by Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham, a member of that committee, is even more opaque. The letter suggests that the Justice Department consider whether Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, lied to federal officials. Anyone can make a referral, though a letter from two senior senators on the panel that oversees the department is bound to get special attention in the halls of Main Justice. What is curious, as the Times points out, is that while the Grassley/Graham letter is vague, it appears to call attention not to allegedly false comments that Steele made to congressional investigators, but to the FBI itself. If Steele lied to the FBI, one would expect the FBI to know, and to pursue charges.
That’s what happened in the cases of former Trump National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, both of whom have recently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Grassley made that comparison explicit in a statement. “If the same actions have different outcomes, and those differences seem to correspond to partisan political interests, then the public will naturally suspect that law enforcement decisions are not on the up-and-up,” he said.
In other words, Grassley is accusing the FBI of pursuing a politically motivated case. That’s also exactly what Democrats say Grassley and Graham are doing with the referral.
There is a strange reversal at play in both news stories. There is widespread agreement that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election, and there is copious evidence that members of the Trump team colluded with Russians and tried to cover it up. As the Justice Department focuses on the Clinton Foundation, the sitting president has refused to divest himself from his companies and may be profiting from them through his actions as president. Both the Friday stories are orchestrated by administration allies and effectively deflect attention from allegations against the Trump administration and campaign.
The Clinton investigations are especially unusual. As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to investigate his opponent if elected—a form of retribution behavior common in failed states with weak rule of law. After his victory, he dropped those promises, but as the Russia investigation has become more threatening to him, he has become more and more agitated about it, and has publicly demanded to know why the Justice Department hasn’t acted.
Although the president is the head of the executive branch and selects the attorney general, it has been taboo for a president to direct the department to launch specific investigations since Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era abuses—a taboo that’s especially strong in the case of one’s political enemies, as in the Trump-Clinton case. (Trump has acknowledged this norm in the past, but blithely disregarded it anyway.) Justice Department leadership is well aware of what Trump says, and it would be disturbing if they took up the case only because of presidential urging. It is, however, not clear why they have reopened the investigations, or whether they have fresh information.