The House Judiciary Committee has prepared a subpoena for the Justice Department to obtain copies of former FBI Director James Comey’s memos documenting his encounters with President Donald Trump, according to sources familiar with the Republican-led committee’s plans.
Committee members were briefed on the subpoena plan Wednesday, and under standard committee processes, the subpoena could be issued as soon as this week, unless the Justice Department satisfies the demand beforehand.
Comey’s memos are believed to be important evidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s interactions with Comey in early 2017 were part of an effort to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians. Republicans have complained that access to the memos for lawmakers has been limited even though Comey testified about the memos to Congress last year and has discussed some of their contents during an ongoing national publicity tour for his new book.
“There’s an urgency there since Jim Comey’s out there talking about the memos,” said Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
The subpoena effort is an escalation of the confrontation between House Republicans and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe. Trump allies in Congress have thrashed Rosenstein for what they’ve described as stonewalling of their requests for sensitive documents related to the probe, as well as the FBI’s 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Trump himself has embraced the Judiciary Committee’s fight in recent weeks, lashing out at his own Justice Department for failing to more rapidly comply with the committee’s requests for unredacted files. The pushback has raised fears among Democrats and DOJ defenders that Trump is seizing on the document drama as a pretext for removing Rosenstein and exerting more influence over Mueller’s investigation.
“The Comey memos are key to the special counsel’s work. Pursuant to long-standing Department policy and absent any satisfactory accommodation, the Department of Justice cannot simply hand over evidence that is part of an ongoing criminal investigation,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
He added: “If House Republicans refuse any accommodation short of the Department of Justice handing over custody of these documents — which it cannot do — I fear the Majority will have manufactured an excuse to hold the Deputy Attorney General in contempt of Congress. If they succeed in tarnishing the Deputy Attorney General, perhaps they will have given President Trump the pretext he has sought to replace Mr. Rosenstein with someone willing to do his bidding and end the Special Counsel’s investigation.”
Aides to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte declined to comment, as did the Justice Department. Goodlatte’s subpoena threat was first reported by The Hill.
The Justice Department and FBI insist they’re rushing to comply with requests but that they must subject their documents to a rigorous review to protect classified material, grand jury information and other information pertinent to active investigations.
Goodlatte joined House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes and Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to request copies of the memos from Rosenstein on Friday.
“There is no legal basis for withholding these materials from Congress,” they wrote in a letter to Rosenstein.
Though they initially demanded the files by Monday, the chairmen relented when Rosenstein asked for a few more days to weigh the request.
In a reply letter, Rosenstein emphasized that a select group of lawmakers and aides had already been allowed to see the memos under a strict guarantee that they not be publicly disclosed.
So far, Rosenstein wrote, they had abided that commitment. He also noted some material in the memos may already be public — Comey testified to Congress about the substance of several of his memos and is in the middle of a national publicity tour for his new book, in which he further characterizes his interactions with Trump.
“However, one or more of the memos may relate to an ongoing investigation, may contain classified information, and may report confidential Presidential communications,” Rosenstein wrote, “so we have a legal duty to evaluate the consequences of providing access to them.”
To support his argument, Rosenstein attached a 1941 opinion from then-Attorney General Robert Jackson, a 1989 memo from then-Assistant Attorney General William Barr, a 2000 letter from Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben outlining the limits on congressional oversight of executive branch investigations.