House GOP chairman plans Clinton email probe – Politico
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz says he’s forging ahead with an investigation into the federal government’s record keeping — a probe he acknowledges could put Hillary Clinton in the cross hairs.
But Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have been clear: They believe the FBI and Justice Department should handle the investigation into Clinton’s use of personal email for government business, and that congressional involvement could disrupt the criminal probe and appear overly partisan. Taking that cue, the House Science Committee, which had planned its own investigation into Clinton’s email server, on Wednesday opted to delay its inquiry and defer to the FBI, an aide on the panel told POLITICO.
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As for Chaffetz, Ryan (R-Wis.) is giving him the green light to proceed — with caution. The speaker authorized Chaffetz to investigate systematic problems within his committee’s broad jurisdiction, while making clear his preference that Chaffetz steer clear of Clinton personally.
Chaffetz hasn’t scheduled a hearing yet, but the Utah Republican has obtained new information, according to sources close to the committee. Chaffetz said the probe will be larger than Clinton but that she’s right in the middle of it.
“The Oversight Committee has jurisdiction on the Federal Records Act, and we intend to pursue that,” Chaffetz said in an interview this week. “We also have jurisdiction on FOIA [the Freedom of Information Act], so if you’re not providing emails, it begs the question of your compliance under FOIA. So, I’m not specifically trying to target the secretary, but when she creates her own private email system, she’s ensnarled herself.”
He added, “I’m trying to be as cautious as I can. I don’t think we should be any harder on her, but I don’t think we should be any easier on her. It’s bigger and broader than just Hillary Clinton.”
Within House Republican leadership, there is heightened sensitivity to congressional scrutiny of Clinton. Ryan prefers that federal authorities handle any potential criminal elements of Clinton’s email scandal, while Rep. Trey Gowdy’s House Select Committee on Benghazi handle anything related to Benghazi.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, decided to delay his look at Clinton’s private email server after House Republican leadership expressed unease. An aide on the panel said the “committee temporarily will defer to the FBI’s expanding investigation,” citing new information that 22 emails on Clinton’s server were top secret.
“We expect the FBI to do its job and fully investigate cyber vulnerabilities that may have resulted from former Secretary Clinton’s decision to deviate from established cybersecurity standards and requirements,” the aide said.
Chaffetz said he’s sensitive to the FBI investigation, but that won’t stop him.
“The FBI should pursue any violations and criminal allegations,” Chaffetz said. “I would argue we also have jurisdictional prerogative on Federal Records Act and FOIA [matters]. We’re being very cautious. I don’t want to overstep, but we’re also trying to move forward.”
Top Republicans seem divided over the wisdom of Chaffetz’s move. Some believe it’s a legitimate exercise of his oversight authority. But others think he’s on a partisan fishing expedition that will unavoidably target Clinton.
Far from looking to protect Clinton, Ryan and McCarthy simply believe they should leave criminal matters to the FBI. Congressional interference would look ham-handed, overly partisan and could disrupt the federal investigation, the GOP leaders believe, according to sources close to them.
Chaffetz says his investigation will deal with systematic issues across the government. He’s aiming to examine noncompliance with FOIA, as well as the use of personal email for government business and how it could affect record-keeping policies. He said the use of private emails to conduct government business is “bigger and broader than just problems at the State Department.”
“They seem to be the worst offender, but you also have this problem at the Department of Defense,” Chaffetz said. “Anybody who would use a nongovernment server to interact on government business is in violation. That’s just been known for a long time, that is the law. [Clinton] is by no means the only violator. I’m still looking at it from 60,000 feet, and wondering who’s violating it, how are they doing it and how do we get them to be in compliance. The inspectors general keep issuing reports, and we’re not ignoring those.”
Chaffetz, however, has long sought a role in investigating Clinton — as has his committee, which is filled with conservative lawmakers.
“I’m with the chairman on this,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who sits on the oversight panel. “Look, we have jurisdiction over [the] Federal Records Act. And if it’s appropriate, and I think it is, for us to look at that, I think we should do it in a professional way. Look, there were 60,000 emails. She got to decide which ones were private and which ones went to State Department. Then the State Department got to further screen. We have yet to learn the date parameters, search terms, who had the final say” over which emails to make available as public records.
In a Capitol filled with politicians brimming with ambition, the 48-year-old Chaffetz stands out. Just eight years into his congressional career, he chairs a committee with sweeping jurisdiction over the federal bureaucracy. He has considered running for the Senate, launched a quixotic bid against his former close friend McCarthy for speaker last fall and now is publicly musing about running for governor of Utah in 2020.
Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) blocked Chaffetz from getting anywhere near the investigation. But when Boehner left Congress in late October, Chaffetz took the opportunity to try to edge back in.
On Jan. 7, Chaffetz met with Ryan and Gowdy (R-S.C.) in a small ceremonial office just off the House floor. Just a few hours before the meeting, the State Department inspector general had released a damning report concluding that Clinton’s top staff had incompletely responded to FOIA requests for Clinton’s email. And the inspector general’s staff had privately told lawmakers something else that was not published in the report: Clinton’s former chief of staff who oversaw the response to one such FOIA request, Cheryl Mills, had refused to be interviewed for the IG’s probe, raising eyebrows on the Hill among members and staff.
Ryan discussed the matter with his leadership, and told Chaffetz that if he was conducting systematic oversight within his jurisdiction, he could proceed judiciously. House Republican leadership aides are being kept in the loop as the investigation progresses.
The investigation is picking up less than a week after the State Department for the first time acknowledged the existence of 22 emails with what it says included “top secret” materials. The department for months had denied claims by intelligence agencies that some of Clinton’s emails included information guarded at the highest classification level because they contained sensitive national security information. Clinton has long denied that any of the emails were considered classified at the time she sent them.
Last week, however, State joined the intelligence community and is now investigating the issue itself.
That move came after the State inspector general’s FOIA report, which chided State for not adhering to public-records rules.
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.