The Homeland Security panel’s investigation centers on the presidential transition period, during which Obama administration officials “unmasked” the name of incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn from intelligence intercepts.
Unmasking refers to the common practice by national security officials to reveal the identity of individuals involved in conversations subject to surveillance by the government.
“It is our job to investigate and provide the American people a complete accounting of what happened during the last transition,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security panel. “The subpoena authority I am requesting today will help us gather the necessary information.”
While the two committees’ areas of inquiry are certain to overlap, Johnson and Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have said they intend to work closely together and share information with each other as necessary. Graham said on Thursday that he does not expect to examine activities that took place during the presidential transition period, leaving that review to Johnson.
The measures authorize both chairmen to issue subpoenas to several executive branch agencies and departments, in addition to a slew of high-level Obama administration officials including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan.
Trump has alleged that top Obama White House officials — and even the former president himself — tried to undermine him and his incoming administration by improperly targeting his associates and advisers. Senate Republicans have mostly echoed those claims, heeding Trump’s calls to launch wide-ranging investigations, including into Hunter Biden, the son of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Democrats, meanwhile, have said the probes are a misuse of the Senate’s oversight authority and simply intended to boost the president’s reelection bid, given the backdrop of the 2020 presidential election and the likelihood that the probes will ensnare Joe Biden.
“Senate Republicans are intent on pressing this investigation, and not the serious challenges facing our country that this committee has a responsibility to address,” said Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel, referring to the coronavirus pandemic and other issues.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said the subpoena authorization Graham is seeking was unprecedented and would give him “unbridled authority to go after Obama-era officials” in pursuit of “politically motivated investigations.”
Johnson said on Wednesday that he intends to issue a report on his committee’s investigation in the fall, before the November election — prompting Democrats to renew their assertions that the probe is political in nature. Johnson is also leading the investigation into Hunter Biden, and has said he plans to issue a report on that probe over the summer.
At least one Republican echoed those concerns. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, says he “continues to be concerned that this is politically motivated.” But he said he “will not stand in the way” of Johnson’s effort to “pursue additional information,” and ended up supporting the subpoena authorization after securing a commitment to drop inspectors general from the list of possible subpoena targets.
The Judiciary Committee’s meeting became heated as senators went back and forth over the merits of the GOP-led probe. At one point, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) interjected and urged a swift committee vote.
“Ninety percent of our committees are about trolling for soundbites,” Sasse remarked, saying he had other committee meetings to attend.
Both committees’ probes are expected to be laser-focused on a Justice Department inspector general’s report that found several “significant errors” in the applications for surveillance warrants against Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. The report was a stinging rebuke of the FBI in particular — though it found that the counterintelligence investigation was properly initiated, a conclusion that Attorney General William Barr and the president have openly challenged.
The Judiciary Committee officially kicked off its investigation on Wednesday when former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appeared before the panel to testify about his appointment of Mueller as special counsel in addition to his sign-off of the fourth and final FISA application for a warrant on Page.
Rosenstein largely blamed the FBI for the alleged mishaps with the FISA applications, as Republicans urged accountability for Rosenstein and other officials involved in crafting the surveillance applications.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.