It’s still three weeks until Election Day, but congressional Republicans are already laying the groundwork to fill the first year of a potential Hillary Clinton administration with more investigations of her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Offices for the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and the House Oversight Committee all confirmed to VICE News that further investigations are coming after the Nov. 8 election.
“I’d like to see the entire committee focus on this,” Republican Congressman Steve Russell, who serves on the Oversight Committee, said. “You can bet that individual members and staff attorneys are going through documents right now.”
Several other Republican congressmen on the Oversight Committee also confirmed that Election Day won’t be the end of the email investigations but the beginning.
With subpoena power and a demonstrated distaste for all things Clinton, the Republican Congress could use this issue as a political bludgeon for several more years and divert attention away from Clinton’s legislative agenda, and there is nothing the Democrats can do to stop it, short of winning control of both houses of Congress, which is unlikely.
The word “impeachment” is already being regularly thrown around among the conservative grassroots, a constituency many congress members depend on for reelection. As a result, what has been considered an ugly and divisive presidential campaign may carry forward into an ugly and divisive presidency.
Over the past year, Congress had largely deferred to the FBI while the agency conducted its criminal investigation into Clinton’s private server. But while the FBI determined there would be no criminal indictment, it discovered plenty of fodder for a political case that will be the focus of these future congressional investigations. Clinton had left herself vulnerable to hacking while traveling “in the area of sophisticated adversaries,” the FBI said. Clinton had neglected to turn over several thousands of work-related emails to the State Department. She had emailed classified information over the server.
Republicans in Congress will look to make all the details of these findings public and will probe deep into the State Department to find any whiff of a cover-up once the FBI began looking into the server matter.
Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, who recently stopped campaigning for Donald Trump, confirmed to VICE News that he will back these investigations. His spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said in an email that the Speaker “supports OGR’s [Oversight and Government Reform Committee] investigative efforts following where the evidence leads. ”
Despite the investigation’s impact on an increasingly likely Clinton presidency, her campaign dismissed them as another silly round of partisan overreaching. The inquiries are meritless, one campaign spokesman said, because “career professionals at the Justice Department determined there was no case.”
But the Justice Department made that determination in July and the email scandal continues to make regular headlines as more documents are turned over to Congress or made public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The subject merited mention in all three presidential debates against Donald Trump whereas some topics, like climate change, were hardly discussed at all.
Just this week, the political firestorm got new kindling in the form of notes from the FBI investigation. They revealed that Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary of state for management and former top aide to Clinton, discussed a “quid pro quo” with an FBI official to change the status of an email on Clinton’s private server to unclassified (Clinton had claimed she never emailed classified material).
While the FBI and State Department never went beyond talk, the lobbying prompted further accusations of a cover-up and Republicans felt more emboldened than ever to call for more investigations. Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told Fox News that at least four new congressional hearings were on the way post-election.
That could be just the beginning. Thousands of documents and emails relating to Clinton’s server have yet to be publicly released. VICE News, for instance, has several FOIA lawsuits against the State Department and FBI that we expect may not be resolved until late 2017. Several other conservative groups, like Judicial Watch, have other FOIA lawsuits that they expect to be released during Clinton’s first 100 days and beyond. Congressman Russell said that as a result, “there’s no question it would have an impact on [Clinton’s] legislative agenda.”
Such threats and plans incense congressional Democrats, who see it as a nakedly political strategy focused on obstruction. Democrats point to the seven Benghazi probes that repeatedly looked into the 2012 killing of four Americans in Libya, including ambassador Chris Stevens. These investigations cost millions of taxpayer dollars and ultimately found no wrongdoing by Clinton.
“Republicans are more interested in distraction and destruction than solutions for the pressing issues facing the American people today,” said Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
House Republicans dismiss suggestions that this is a partisan witch hunt. It was a House Republican investigation into Benghazi, they point out, that first surfaced Clinton’s use of a private email server.
But it’s unclear what preparations, if any, Clinton and her allies are making for the coming onslaught of investigations. From the beginning, Clinton’s team has seriously underestimated the political toxicity of her private email server.
When the server first became public knowledge in March of 2015, campaign spokesman Nick Merrill emailed other senior staff that he thought the controversy could play out “over the weekend” and die “in the short term,” according to hacked emails released on WikiLeaks.
Instead, the FBI launched a yearlong criminal investigation into Clinton’s use of the private server. The FBI director eventually said this past July that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a case against Clinton but then proceeded to dismantle many of her previous explanations and excuses. She and her staff, he said, had been “extremely careless.”
Disregarding the criticism, the Clinton campaign heralded the decision and declared that any questions about her private server were now “resolved.” Further probes were described as “futile” and “partisan” by Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon.
Several months later, the issue still has not gone away, and Republicans are taking steps to keep it alive. Russell ominously explained the persistence this way: “Imagine during Watergate if people quit investigating and said, you know, he won by a landslide.”