U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham talks to a reporter as he arrives at Capitol Hill in Washington U.S. on May 10, 2016.
Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Senators go to new lengths to target Trump-Russia dossier author

Updated

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was one of Donald Trump’s fiercest Republican critics, before he took an embarrassingly sycophantic turn in the president’s direction. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has occasionally flirted with fleeting moments of independence, before using his post as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to carry water for the White House.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 1/5/18, 9:00 PM ET

Republicans, compliant FBI make progress undermining Russia probe

Rachel Maddow looks at how Republican interest in investigating Russia’s intrusion in the 2016 election has turned over the course of the past year to an interest in undermining that investigation, and how the FBI has become more compliant as Trump and
Rachel Maddow looks at how Republican interest in investigating Russia’s intrusion in the 2016 election has turned over the course of the past year to an interest in undermining that investigation, and how the FBI has become more compliant as Trump and
But even among those who expect very little from these high-profile Republican lawmakers, Friday’s developments were stunning.

Top Republicans leading one of the congressional inquiries into Russian meddling in the 2016 election have asked the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against the former British intelligence officer behind the controversial Trump dossier, saying they believe he may have misled federal law enforcement.

The criminal referral announced Friday by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was the first by the panel, and drew complaints from Democrats who saw it as the latest instance of Republicans trying to divert attention away from potential collusion between Russians and Trump campaign officials by focusing on Christopher Steele and his 35-page dossier.

I try not to be surprised by the lengths some Republicans will go to advance a brazenly partisan agenda, but the Graham/Grassley letter is unique in its ridiculousness. As Rachel noted on Friday’s show, when the U.S. intelligence community released its assessment a year ago on the Russian attack, intended to help put Trump in power, it seemed possible that there would be bipartisan support for a thorough investigation – including the extent to which Vladimir Putin’s government may have had American partners helping execute their crimes.

After a year of examinations, two Republican lawmakers have, for the first time, made a criminal referral to the Justice Department: they want federal prosecutors to consider bringing charges against the one person who actually called the FBI when he found out that Russia was trying to play a role in the election to help Donald Trump.

There are, to be sure, all kinds of Russian nationals who made contact with the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization – communications that the candidate and his team later lied about – and no one from the Republican operation thought to notify the FBI. But Christopher Steele, the guy who did call the FBI, is now the one Grassley and Graham would like to see face a criminal inquiry – because he may have mixed up some dates when describing to investigators when exactly he had off-the-record conversations with reporters about his intelligence reports, which he had handed over to the FBI.

Adding a degree of farce to this story, Graham and Grassley – who did not consult with their Democratic colleagues on the Judiciary Committee before sending the criminal referral to the Justice Department – didn’t uncover damaging new information through the course of a congressional investigation. Rather, in this case, the GOP duo took information they received from the Justice Department and then sent it back to the DOJ with a request to weigh criminal charges.

The Washington Post  reported, “A veteran prosecutor, Peter Zeidenberg, said he had never heard of anything like the Grassley-Graham complaint and labeled it ‘nonsense’ designed to detract from ongoing inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 election.”

Those behind the stunt do not appear to be embarrassed. For his part, Graham appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, where he continued to target Steele, went after some Justice Department officials by name and said he will “insist” on another special counsel to pursue the allegations Republicans care about.

Rachel added an important detail on Friday night: there was a point in the not-too-distant past in which Trump and his team seemed genuinely afraid of what congressional Republicans might uncover as part of an investigation into Russia’s attack on the election. The president personally leaned on key GOP officials, asking that they “protect” him.

At this point, we can now say with confidence that those appeals were either (a) extraordinarily effective, with congressional Republicans agreeing to do the White House’s bidding; or (b) entirely unnecessary, with GOP lawmakers volunteering to go to great lengths to shield their partisan ally.