Missouri’s Josh Hawley, at Barr hearing, blasts FBI for scrutinizing Trump on Russia

Sen. Josh Hawley Tuesday used his first big forum as a U.S. senator to attack the FBI over a report that the agency began scrutinizing President Donald Trump after the Republican Party softened its stance on Russia in its 2016 platform.

Hawley, R-Missouri, clearly relished the chance to answer criticism of Trump’s stance on Russia, and used the confirmation hearing of attorney general nominee William Barr to grab the spotlight at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

After Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, asked Barr if he found allegations about connections between Trump and Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia “stomach-churning,” Hawley said he also found recent reports about Trump and Russia “stomach-turning” but added that it was “for a different reason.”

Hawley referenced a New York Times report that Trump caught the attention of the FBI’s counterintelligence unit after the president declined to criticize Putin during the 2016 campaign as the GOP changed its stance on Russian military intervention in Ukraine to no longer include support for arming pro-western elements in the country.

The report said that the FBI opened an inquiry on whether Trump was acting as a Russian agent after here became president and fired FBI Director James Comey, but Hawley exprerssed concern that the initial questions about Trump were raised by the FBI because of because of the GOP’s platform change.

“In your experience with the FBI, is it strange to have a counterintelligence investigation begun because members of that bureau disagree with the foreign policy stances of a president or president of the United States?” Hawley asked Barr.

Barr provided a one-word answer: Yes.

Hawley raised a legitimate concern, said David Satter, an expert on Russia who serves as a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Foreign Policy Institute.

“Hawley is correct that you don’t want the FBI making these political judgments,” Satter said. “You might not like what the president is saying, but that’s not the basis for you, an unelected official, to launch an espionage investigation.”

The FBI Agents Association declined to comment on Hawley’s questions to Barr.

Lauren Gepford, the acting executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, criticized Hawley’s line of questioning.

“The FBI is a nonpartisan agency. Josh Hawley is not serving the best interest of Missourians by being so blinded to the truth because of his partisan loyalty,” Gepford said in an email.

However, Hawley was one of 11 Republicans to side with Democrats later in the day on a 57-42 vote to move ahead with a measure to prevent the Trump administration from relaxing sanctions on Russian companies. The resolution will require 60 votes to pass the chamber later this week.

Barr served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush and is close with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has repeatedly been attacked by Trump during the course of his investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.

Hawley told Barr that he was well-qualified to serve as Trump’s attorney general.

Hawley devoted most of his first 10 minutes of question time to addressing his concerns about the technology industry and whether the Department of Justice should be using anti-trust statutes more aggressively against large tech firms.

“Google and Facebook pose significant challenges not just for competition but also for privacy and the free flow of ideas,” Hawley said.

Hawley, the former Missouri attorney general, has been vocal about his concerns about tech monopolies in recent months.

The senator contended that technology companies have the power to influence elections. He argued that there is evidence that large firms have shown a bias against conservative and libertarian viewpoints.

Barr told Hawley that he’s interested in the “issue of privacy and who owns this data. It’s not an area that I’ve studied closely… but I think it’s important for the department to get more involved in these questions.”

But he also said that he would have to “think long and hard before I said it was really the stuff of an anti-trust matter.” The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission share dual authority on anti-trust issues.

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice, a group that represents the tech industry, warned against “calls for weaponization of anti-trust laws” for political reasons and said “we should be wary of expanding the role of a criminal enforcement body into civil matters.”

Julianna Rennie of The McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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