Senator Mitt Romney has his foot hovering over the brakes for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s ongoing probe into alleged — and so far unsubstantiated — malfeasance by Obama-era intelligence officials during the 2016 and 2017 Russia investigations.
And that’s where it remained on Thursday, as the Utah Republican voted in lockstep with his party’s majority on the panel, 8-6, to approve nearly three dozen subpoenas for top ex-Obama officials such as former FBI Director James Comey and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Mr Romney, who voted in February to remove Donald Trump from office after his impeachment trial in the Senate, has said for months he is dubious of the two separate investigations Mr Johnson is conducting that are designed to call into question the governing integrity of presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
One of those probes concerns the former vice president’s foreign policy decisions in Eastern Europe while his son Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, that had a checkered history with corruption.
The other probe is an attempt to peel back the curtain on the Obama administration’s decision-making surrounding the FBI’s 2016 counterintelligence investigation into possible links between 2016 Trump campaign aides and people with or claiming ties to Russia, an operation Mr Biden was also involved in.
As the lone Republican on the Homeland Security panel who has publicly expressed a strong wariness of the probes — and who has a history of speaking out against the current president — Mr Romney’s bargaining power to bend the investigations is immense.
So far, he has reluctantly played ball with his fellow Republicans, though on Thursday he revealed he had used his leverage to obtain a promise from Mr Johnson that inspectors general who are supposed to act as independent watchdogs of their assigned government agencies would not be subpoenaed.
Mr Romney has previously sought — and received — assurances from Mr Johnson that any subpoenaed testimony for the investigations would be conducted in a closed setting “without a hearing or public spectacle,” his spokeswoman has said.
Ergo, for now, Mr Romney “will not stand in the way” of the committee’s attempts to “pursue additional information,” he said on Thursday.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, has cheered on the Homeland Security Committee’s investigations and a similar probe headed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham while promoting their underlying insinuations that former President Barack Obama was privy to — and may have even directed — a grand conspiracy among US intelligence officials to kneecap the Trump presidency in its nascence by using the FBI to legally ensnare certain incoming Trump advisers such as erstwhile national security adviser Micahel Flynn.
Mr Trump has coined that unsubstantiated notion, along with a vast web of related conspiracy theories, “Obamagate.”
Mr Romney’s public comments dating back to this past winter about the probes into the Bidens and the Obama administration suggest he is uncomfortable being plopped in the middle of such a pitched partisan battle that could have implications on the 2020 presidential election.
“I think people are tired of these kinds of political investigations and would hope that if there’s something of significance that needs to be evaluated it would be done by perhaps the FBI or some other agency that’s not as political as perhaps a committee of our body,” Mr Romney told reporters in March.
That’s exactly what’s happening, which Mr Romney is quick to point out: Attorney General William Barr has tasked US Attorney John Durham to examine the origins of the FBI’s 2016 counterintelligence operation, codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane,” and whether investigators acted inappropriately.
Mr Graham’s Judiciary panel as well as the Senate Finance Committee are also seeking answers about the origins and conduct of Crossfire Hurricane.
And DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report last December highlighting numerous errors in the FBI’s 2016 applications to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
“This committee's inquiry is not entirely without basis. But as you know, I believe there are far more urgent priorities the committee should address, particularly given the trauma in our country from Covid-19, a shattered economy, widespread protests against systemic racism, foreign cyber attacks, and the list goes on,” Mr Romney said, noting the redundancy of other government entities’ ongoing probes.
Mr Romney wants to “narrow the scope” of the Homeland Security Committee’s work “to focus on specific wrongdoing,” he added.
That may be difficult to do with Mr Trump cheering from the Oval Office as Mr Johnson has leaned into the investigations.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has appeared to respond to pressure from the president to rev up the rhetoric against career federal law enforcement agents.
Mr Romney remains the apprehensive wild card.