WASHINGTON (AP) – House Republicans on Tuesday launched new probes into the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s emails, prompting accusations from Democrats who said the moves were meant as a “massive diversion” from investigations into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The announcements of the investigations by three GOP committees came as two witnesses close to President Donald Trump faced tough questions before the House intelligence panel behind closed doors as part its Russia probe.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his former campaign digital and data director, Brad Parscale, were both interviewed by the House panel behind closed doors Tuesday. Cohen’s interview started in the morning and lasted around six hours, while Parscale’s lasted most of the afternoon.
Two lawmakers familiar with Cohen’s interview said it had been “contentious,” especially with Cohen’s lawyer who tried to limit some questions. The lawmakers asked not to be identified because the meeting was private.
Cohen, a former executive with the Trump Organization who had been subpoenaed by the House panel earlier this year, was in talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, but ended those negotiations as Trump’s White House bid caught fire. In a statement to the Senate intelligence committee in August, Cohen said the proposal was “solely a real estate deal and nothing more.”
One of the lawmakers said Parscale “categorically denied” he was involved in any collusion with Russia, repeating earlier public statements. Lawmakers have been investigating whether Russian efforts to influence social media in the U.S. were in any way connected to Trump’s campaign.
As Cohen spoke to investigators, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., held a news conference outside the room to announce a separate committee investigation into an Obama-era uranium deal.
Nunes earlier this year stepped back from the committee’s investigation into Russian election interference after criticism that he was too close to the White House. But he has continued to be involved with some aspects of it, including signing subpoenas.
Nunes’ investigation into the uranium deal will be a joint effort with the House Oversight and Government Reform panel. The oversight committee also announced a second new investigation Tuesday along with the House Judiciary Committee into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation and the decision not to prosecute her.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, said the investigations show Republicans’ “fundamental lack of seriousness” about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
“Acting on the urging of the president who has repeatedly denied the intelligence agencies’ conclusions regarding Russian involvement in our election, they are designed to distract attention and pursue the president’s preferred goal – attacking Clinton and Obama,” Schiff said.
Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, the Republican who took over the Russia probe after Nunes stepped back, said the uranium investigation won’t be a distraction. “I’m not involved,” he said.
Nunes and other Republicans who announced the probe said they want to know more about whether Obama’s Department of Justice was investigating the purchase of American uranium mines by a Russian-backed company in 2010. The agreement was reached while Hillary Clinton led the State Department and some investors in the company had relationships with former President Bill Clinton and donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation.
While Democrats have dismissed the issue, which was also brought up during the campaign, as widely debunked, Trump has called it “the real Russia story.” The White House praised Nunes’ move, with spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying the investigation is a “move in the right direction, and something that we’ve spoken about several times here – that if there was any collusion whatsoever during the campaigns of any point – or any collusion at any point with another country, that they should look at the Clintons.”
Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight panels also criticized the new investigations, saying in a joint statement that another round of Clinton email investigations are a “massive diversion to distract from the lack of Republican oversight of the Trump administration and the national security threat that Russia poses.”
“Apparently, House Republicans are more concerned about Jim Comey than Vladimir Putin,” said Michigan Rep. John Conyers and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Ousted FBI Director James Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke at length to Congress about that investigation last year, and it’s the subject of an ongoing review by the Justice Department’s inspector general. The Judiciary and Oversight panels have declined to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, leaving those probes to Senate committees and the House intelligence committee.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller also is investigating Russia’s meddling in the Trump election.
Separately, Nunes has also been embroiled in a legal fight with a Washington political research firm behind a dossier of allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia. Nunes signed off on subpoenas that sought the banking records of the firm, Fusion GPS.
A lawyer for the firm said in a statement Tuesday the subpoena was “overly broad” and without any legitimate purposes. The matter is now before a federal judge in Washington.