WASHINGTON — It began with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reading from text messages between high-ranking FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
“Trump is a f***ing idiot,” Graham quoted from a Strzok text in his opening statement, as Attorney General William P. Barr prepared to testify about his handling of the report on election fraud and obstruction of justice by Trump campaign and administration officials. That report, written by special counsel Robert Mueller, was made public earlier this month.
Graham then apologized for using an obscenity. “Sorry to the kids out there,” he said.
Over the course of Mueller’s investigation, Strzok and Page were a central focus of the president and his supporters, who sought to use the two former officials’ messages as a way to discredit the FBI’s investigation.
Reference to the Strzok-Page texts was an early sign that the Republican members would try to shift the hearing to attack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama, as well as what President Trump and his allies have called an anti-Trump “deep state” within the Department of Justice and the FBI, as well as other federal agencies.
Graham’s comments came in the context of a discussion about Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. The Strzok-Page communications were revealed in the context of that investigation, which resulted in no charges.
For many of Trump’s supporters, Clinton’s transgressions — chronicled on a nightly basis on Fox News — remain far graver than anything Trump ever did, either as candidate or president, and remain in desperate need of investigation. That argument was on vivid display on Wednesday afternoon, limiting the time for Barr to discuss his handling of the Mueller report.
“When the Mueller report is put to bed, and it soon will be, this committee is gonna look long and hard at how this all started,” Graham warned, in a seeming reference to the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration. He then said that the so-called Steele dossier — which contained many allegations about Trump’s involvement with Russia — may have itself been Russian misinformation.
Graham then went on to discuss various other alleged transgressions involving Clinton and her email servers, in a clip inevitably destined to become a favorite of Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor who serves as a kind of shadow chief of staff to Trump.
Other Republicans took a similar approach. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee’s former chairman, also asked Barr for more information about Strzok, Page and any other anti-Trump elements within the Department of Justice. He also said he wanted to know more about “spying by the FBI on the Trump campaign,” which would have been directed by the Obama administration. Barr said “people in the department” were looking into the matter, and that Congress would be apprised of his conclusions.
Grassley then argued that the Steele dossier was itself a form of collusion between the Russian government and the Democratic Party. He criticized Mueller for not looking into whether the dossier was a form of Russian misinformation.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, went all the way back to 2014, faulting the Obama administration for not beginning in that year to investigate Russian attempts at electoral interference. Though the administration was indeed slow to recognize that threat, by the fall of 2016, there was near-certainty by Obama’s advisers that the Russians were intent on influencing the election to help Trump. Efforts to express that worry publicly, and in a bipartisan manner, was hindered by Cornyn’s colleague and close ally Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“We now need to know,” Cornyn continued, “what steps the Obama FBI, Department of Justice and intelligence community — what steps they took to undermine the political process and put a thumb on the scale in favor of one political candidate over the other — and that would be before and after the 2016 election.”
An infuriated Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.., who followed Cornyn in his questioning of Barr, said Republicans were “going to work together and coordinate the so-called lock-her-up defense,” referencing the famous anti-Clinton refrain heard at Trump campaign rallies. For the Republican members of the committee, he said, “This is really not supposed to be about the Mueller investigation, the Russian involvement in the election, the Trump campaign and so forth. It is really about Hillary Clinton’s emails. Finally, we get down to the bottom line,” he said, banging his fist on the podium. “Hillarys Clinton’s emails. Questions have to be asked about Benghazi along the way. What about Travelgate, Whitewater?” he wondered, referencing scandals of the former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Durbin said that what he deemed Republican misdirection was “totally unresponsive to the reality of what the American people want to know.” The majority of Americans did want the report made public, and they have eagerly consumed it since its release; a version of the Mueller report published by the Washington Post is currently the bestselling book on Amazon.
Durbin’s anger had little effect on his Republican colleagues. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, used his time to question potential surveillance of the Trump presidential campaign by the Obama administration in the summer of 2016. He too referenced Strzok and Page, as well as an airport tarmac meeting between Bill Clinton and Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch. That meeting, an idée fixe for some Trump supporters, has no connection to the Mueller report.
Read more from Yahoo News: