Broadening their political counterattack in defense of the White House, President Donald Trump's allies in Congress are placing new scrutiny on contacts between top Justice Department officials and reporters covering the Trump-Russia investigation.
In recent weeks, GOP congressional investigators have publicly and privately questioned senior Justice Department and FBI leaders about interactions with reporters covering the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. The goal, according to a half-dozen lawmakers and aides, is to expose any concerted effort by law enforcement officials to spin an anti-Trump narrative in the media through unauthorized leaks.
"There are a number of other inappropriate communications that have transpired between the FBI/DOJ and media outlets that have not been disclosed," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top House conservative and member of the Oversight Committee.
On Thursday, Republicans demanded more information from the Justice Department officials about a meeting Andrew Weissman, a career federal prosecutor now on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigative team, held with reporters last April. In a Jan. 4 op-ed, Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to be replaced, citing in part an "alarming number of FBI agents and DOJ officials sharing information with reporters."
Last month, House Republicans cast public suspicion on communication they say occurred in the fall of 2016 between former FBI general counsel James Baker and a Mother Jones reporter who wrote stories at the time about the FBI’s probe of Trump-Russia ties. The lawmakers cited Justice Department documents for the claim but have provided no further details.
Republicans have offered no evidence of wrongdoing and say they are merely seeking more information for now. Democrats call the focus on reporter contacts the latest front in a wide-ranging campaign by some GOP lawmakers to discredit the Russia probe as an anti-Trump conspiracy fueled by what Trump has characterized as a “deep state” determined to bring him down.
They also warn that Republicans are seeking to intimidate government officials and chill investigative reporting.
“Republicans don’t seem to want to conduct a fair investigation," said Matt Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration. "Looking at officials you want to target and trying to find out whether they’ve had any contact with media is a backwards way to conduct an investigation.”
The Republican focus on Justice Department contacts with the media escalated last week, after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) reached a Wednesday agreement with Justice Department leaders to secure witness testimony from officials whose handling of the Trump-Russia probe he has criticized.
Nunes released a letter the next day to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein which included a little-noticed reference to an alleged meeting between Weissmann and reporters.
Rosenstein's office, Nunes wrote, "is researching records related to the details of an April 2017 meeting between DOJ Attorney Andrew Weissman… and the media."
The letter offered no other details about the meeting, such as why it might be the subject of an inquiry. But sources tell Politico that Republicans intend to ask more questions along these lines in the coming weeks.
Other Republicans, meanwhile, have recently complained that British spy Christopher Steele, the author of a disputed Trump-Russia dossier who has also served as a source for the FBI’s Russia probe, had what they call inappropriate contacts with reporters during the 2016 election.
“I don't think an informant for the FBI should be taking the product and shopping it around to journalists throughout the world,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press.".
Miller noted that DOJ has long-established policies for investigating leaks internally. "When you insert another branch of government into the mix, and they’re only calling for investigations that seem to advance a partisan agenda, it is a very dangerous road for them to go down," he said.
Republicans reject the critique.
"If this was a case of a whistle-blower exposing wrongdoing within an agency, I can assure you they would find unyielding support from me and my colleagues,” Meadows said. “But the intentional sharing of sensitive information designed to spin a particular narrative in the media is an entirely different case."
One advocate for press freedom called the GOP’s focus on media contacts worrisome.
“I worry it will lead to requiring journalists to testify for their side of the story which would really be bad,” said James Goodale, the former general counsel of The New York Times who led the outlet’s Pentagon Papers litigation.
GOP lawmakers say they don’t intend to summon reporters as witnesses or demand details about their sources.
"I don't want to get into a position where we're chilling free speech," said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a House Judiciary Committee member and fierce Mueller critic. "I think before you bring in the reporter, you've got to bring in the official who you suspect."
Last month, two congressional GOP sources told POLITICO that House GOP investigators had reviewed DOJ documents describing communication between Baker, who was recently reassigned from his post as FBI general counsel, and Mother Jones reporter David Corn in the weeks before Corn broke the first story about Steele's investigation of Trump ties to Russia. The sources did not allege any specific wrongdoing and Corn flatly rejected that Baker was his source for the story.
In a sign that Republicans could risk a backlash from law enforcement professionals, the suggestion of impropriety uncorked harsh criticism from prominent FBI defenders.
"Sadly, we are now at a point in our political life when anyone can be attacked for partisan gain," former FBI Director James Comey tweeted.
Republicans pushed the issue behind closed doors last month during FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee and to a joint meeting of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. According to the two sources familiar with McCabe's testimony, the veteran FBI official was pressed on who at the bureau is authorized to talk to the media.
Biggs, in a phone interview, said law enforcement agencies, in particular, should be routing all information for reporters through official PR channels.
"The reason that these agencies have a media relations, public relations person is typically to prevent kind of what we're seeing happen," he said. "When you have independent, high-level people developing individual relationships and going on-record and even off-record or on background, I just think that's inappropriate."
Graham and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the Justice Department last week to probe whether Steele misled federal officials about his handling of the dossier. Democrats called the move a diversionary stunt.
"I think this referral is unfortunate as it’s clearly another effort to deflect attention from what should be the committee’s top priority: determining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election and whether there was subsequent obstruction of justice," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a statement.