House members took the power to investigate those investigating them

ADVERTISEMENT

Members of a new House committee will have the power to investigate agencies that are investigating them

A bloc of Republican lawmakers has negotiated a new subcommittee that could give them the power to investigate law enforcement agencies that may, in turn, investigate them for involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

Kevin McCarthy created the investigative panel, the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, as part of a deal with far-right holdouts to get the votes he needed to become House Speaker.

The Department of Justice doesn’t usually release information about ongoing investigations, but there is reason to believe it could be actively investigating members of Congress over the 2020 election, including the committee’s expected new leader, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Jordan spoke to Trump on the morning of Jan. 6, according to records collected by congressional investigators, and was in touch with then-Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows during the lead-up to the attack.

Trump allies meanwhile signaled concern they could be in trouble during Trump’s last days as president. At least seven members of Congress either requested or discussed pardons in the final days of the Trump administration, according to evidence and testimony collected by the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attacks: Jordan, Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

ADVERTISEMENT

Proponents say the goal of the committee is to unearth abuses of power among federal intelligence agencies, and Jordan has claimed he has “dozens” of whistleblowers hoping to discuss such misconduct. But given the powers they’ll wield, observers say there’s an inherent conflict of interest in which people who are potentially implicated in Department of Justice investigations are simultaneously taking on roles as DOJ investigators.

“It is screaming ‘conflict of interest,’” said Kris Kolesnik, who spent 19 years working as counsel and chief investigator to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). “People like Jim Jordan are potentially going to be witnesses — and you don’t want witnesses investigating themselves. There’s clearly a bias there.”

Jordan rejected the notion that the committee could be “a ploy” while speaking on the House floor this week, saying the new effort is “about the First Amendment.”

A frequent guest on Fox News and pugnacious investigator who rocketed to cable news fame when he was involved with the House Benghazi probe, Jordan will also have a national platform as chairman of both the subcommittee and the broader House Judiciary Committee that he can use to fan anger at the FBI and the DOJ if he chooses.

“He’s got the kind of power, with that MAGA base, to put a big target on [FBI Director] Chris Wray and have every right-wing whack job in the country going after him, violently or otherwise, as well as anybody else who works for Chris Wray,” Kolesnik added. “That’s an incredibly powerful instrument that he’s got there.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Lawmakers on the right have dismissed such concerns. When asked if he would recuse himself from any investigations launched by House Republicans into Jan. 6 on ABC’s “This Week,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said there was no need.

“Why should I be limited just because someone has made an accusation? Everybody in America is innocent until proven guilty,” Perry told “This Week.”

But Donald Sherman, former Democratic counsel to the House Ethics Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said he believes that if committee members are under investigation, they could try to use it as a shield, casting skepticism of the FBI.

“This committee seems entirely designed and groomed to inoculate members — some of whom have been referred to the House Ethics Committee already — and who may be under investigation by the Department of Justice,” Sherman told Grid.

Investigations into Jan 6

Testimony and evidence presented at the Jan. 6 committee hearings last year showed more than a dozen GOP lawmakers, including Jordan and other advocates for the special panel, were involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

While Jordan, who is potentially under investigation, is expected to chair the subcommittee, other committee members have yet to be announced but could include other Trump allies.

There are signs the DOJ’s investigations into Jan. 6 are ongoing. Attorney General Merrick Garland in November appointed Special Counsel Jack Smith to spearhead two long-running investigations involving former President Donald Trump, one of which concerns “whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or the certification of the Electoral College vote held on or about Jan. 6, 2021.”

A congressional probe into the Justice Department could only serve to fuel the fire that Jordan and others are stoking: DOJ does not usually share sensitive material about ongoing investigations with Congress, and any attempt from Congress to obtain such documents will likely result in legal fights — clashes that could give Jordan and others reason to accuse DOJ of being obtuse.

This politicized stage could complicate a real need for government oversight into surveillance programs, experts told Grid.

Daniel Schuman, policy director for the progressive group Demand Progress, noted parts of the subcommittee’s mandate, such as oversight of government surveillance, have been areas of interest for both the left and the right. But he expressed concern that those efforts will likely be led by Jordan and his allies.


ADVERTISEMENT

“Their viewpoint is fundamentally orthogonal to a healthy democracy,” Schuman said. But the committee’s leadership structure will make carrying out duties related to government oversight difficult, Schuman added: “It’s sending the arsonists to fight the fire.”

Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department communications director under the George W. Bush administration, said he believes the federal law enforcement agencies are ripe for Congressional oversight. Corallo said he was glad to see the creation of the subcommittee.

“I think that both federal law enforcement and our military and our intelligence community have got to be put under way tighter oversight controls than the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or commerce or education,” Corallo told Grid. “In the case of federal law enforcement, we give them guns and badges. We give them the awesome power of prosecution.”

Where it all started

To historians, Republicans’ recent turn against the FBI has been nothing short of shocking.

Skepticism of government surveillance in America is not new — but up until recently, the Republican Party was a steadfast supporter of the FBI, said Douglas Charles, author of books including “Federal Bureau of Investigation, The: History, Powers, and Controversies of the FBI.”

ADVERTISEMENT

“Historically, the Republican Party was a booster of the FBI dating as far back as you want to take it,” Charles told Grid. “That narrative has flipped, of course, because of politics surrounding Trump.”

Some Republican support eroded after the FBI’s 2016 probe into the Trump campaign’s links to Russian officials. As investigations ramped up into Trump’s alleged involvement in trying to overturn the 2020 election results and retaining classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, Republicans lost their historic sympathy.

The August FBI raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property was a turning point among supporters on the right. The FBI experienced an “unprecedented” number of threats against both the agency and the agents who signed the paperwork for the raid, the agency said. Online posters called for Merrick Garland to be assassinated, and a man with an AR-15 rifle tried to break into the FBI’s field office in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Republicans have repeatedly said the new Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government will be modeled off the Church Committee, a 1970s-era congressional committee focused on probing the government’s intelligence-gathering abuses that helped spark federal reforms, including the creation of permanent House and Senate Intelligence Committees that can review intelligence-related material collected by the federal government.

But the Church Committee was formed in response to reporting in major news outlets about shocking surveillance conducted by the federal government, like the revelation that the CIA was monitoring anti-war protestors and other civilians. Republican allegations about the federal government’s abuses of intelligence today have not been similarly substantiated by the media.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Church Committee also went about its investigation in a deliberate, bipartisan manner, which allowed it to negotiate effectively with the Ford administration for materials. The new subcommittee has not begun its work, and Democrats are expected to participate in the panel. But it has also shown signs of the partisan rancor that characterized the last Congress: The committee’s creation was vehemently opposed by Democrats, who allege it is nothing more than an outlet for conservative anger and a shield for lawmakers like Jordan who could be facing FBI investigation.

What else could the committee do?

The mandate of the new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government is expansive: The committee is supposed to investigate intelligence-gathering agencies like the FBI, how they work with and obtain information from private companies and citizens, “any other issues related to the violation of the civil liberties” of U.S. citizens and “any other matter” relating to information the committee collects when doing its investigation.

“Despite the fact that this subcommittee will be housed under the Judiciary Committee, the jurisdiction could be whatever they want,” one Democratic House aide told Grid.

And the resolution creating the committee specifically says that its authority includes investigating “ongoing criminal investigations” by the executive branch — which would include any investigations into Trump and efforts by the former president and his allies to overturn the 2020 election.

The committee will also have unusual access to classified information: Its members will be allowed access to the materials the House Intelligence Committee can view — a change the Democratic House aide called a “major, major change in how classified information is handled” on Capitol Hill.

ADVERTISEMENT

House Intelligence Committee members have access to significantly different information from other rank-and-file lawmakers, and that information is not usually shared outside the committee.

The subcommittee’s proposed mandate did not originally include national intelligence topics and “ongoing criminal investigations.” Those broadened authorities were among eight changes to the resolution expanding the subcommittee’s scope on Friday, amid tense negotiations that led breakaway Republicans to shift their support to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Gaetz, one of the Republican holdouts, had spent much of last week explaining his objection to McCarthy on hard-right Republican principles. Shortly before casting a crucial vote that gave McCarthy his speakership, Gaetz offered a blunt explanation of what changed his mind.

“I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for,” he said.

Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.

  • Maggie Severns
    Maggie Severns

    Domestic Policy Reporter

    Maggie Severns is a policy reporter for Grid covering complex policy stories and major headlines.

  • Steve Reilly
    Steve Reilly

    Investigative Reporter

    Steve Reilly is an investigative reporter for Grid focusing on threats to democracy.