Republican senators are demanding answers from Attorney General Merrick Garland about Susan Hennessey’s role in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, highlighting her “bias” shown in comments critiquing John Durham’s investigation.
Hennessey, a former NSA attorney, was picked in May for a key role at the DOJ. The former CNN contributor and editor of the Lawfare blog has a history of defending the Trump-Russia investigation.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson said they want answers from the DOJ because Hennessey "has repeatedly and publicly expressed partisan comments about previous and current investigations including the Justice Department inspector general’s review of Crossfire Hurricane and Special Counsel John Durham’s ongoing investigation, raising concerns that she is conflicted and should be recused from such investigations.”
The senators said, in December 2020, Hennessey “expressed a clear partisan bias” when she tweeted: “Durham has made abundantly clear that in a year and a half, he hasn't come up with anything. I guess this kind of partisan silliness has become characteristic of Barr's legacy, but unclear to me why Durham would want to go along with it.”
Grassley and Johnson said Hennessey's “bias against Durham’s inquiry presents a clear conflict that makes it impossible for her to be objective."
Hennessey also said in September, “The Durham investigation presents the opportunity for bad actors to make a lot of mischief.”
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Trump Attorney General William Barr quietly appointed Durham to be special counsel in October after assigning him the task in May 2019. Garland declined to promise during his confirmation hearing that he would protect Durham's investigation or make his report public.
Durham’s criminal inquiry has netted one guilty plea. Ex-FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith admitted he falsified a document during the bureau’s efforts to renew its FISA warrant against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The Republican senators also said Hennessey “expressed copious public views in support of the fundamentally flawed Crossfire Hurricane investigation and vouched for the Steele Dossier.”
They pointed to a Lawfare post from January 2017, in which Hennessey wrote the British ex-spy was “a person whose work intelligence professionals take seriously.” Hennessey claimed, “The president and president-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility.” Her post also claimed Steele compiled his memos “on behalf of anti-Trump Republicans and, later, Democrats working against Trump,” which is false. Steele put his research together at the behest of Fusion GPS, funded by Hillary Clinton's campaign.
“If reports that a FISA order was obtained are accurate, that means that the FBI has developed a lot more evidence than just this private dossier on the point,” Hennessey wrote.
DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz said Steele’s dossier played a "central and essential" role in seeking FISA surveillance and FBI interviews of Steele's primary subsource “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting."
Grassley and Johnson said Hennessey “attacked” the “credibility” of Horowitz to "discredit” the report. They pointed to a November 2019 tweet in which she claimed, “There are growing signs that there are serious problems with the IG report and questions as to whether this is designed to be an honest accounting of the views of the IG or a political document driven by Barr’s conspiracy theories.”
Horowitz criticized the DOJ and the FBI for 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the FISA warrants, for concealing potentially exculpatory information, and for the bureau's reliance on the dossier.
The DOJ watchdog said the FBI's explanations were “unsatisfactory across the board" but was unable to determine whether the mistakes were “gross negligence” or “intentional misconduct.”
The DOJ told the FISA court the final two Page FISA warrants were “not valid." FBI Director Christopher Wray agreed there had been illegal surveillance.
Grassley and Johnson pointed to comments Hennessey made about the 2018 FISA memo by GOP Rep. Devin Nunes that “exposed Crossfire Hurricane’s fundamental flaws.” Hennessey tweeted in January 2018 that the “process of debunking [the memo] will be thorough but take long enough that damage from widespread confusion will be done.”
The Republican memo found Steele's anti-Trump dossier formed an essential part of the FISA applications and that the political origins and bias of the Steele dossier were known to senior officials but excluded from FISA applications.
The senators concluded, “Hennessey’s partisan comments show a clear political bias that undercuts her ability to impartially work on some matters ... including the Durham inquiry.”
Hennessey told CNN in December 2018, “We can say without exaggeration that if Donald Trump was not currently president of the United States, he would be under indictment or he would be imminently under indictment."
Hennessey tweeted, “This is actually a very big deal” and that “the first concrete allegation of Trump team collusion” after a Washington Post reporter tweeted in June 2017 that a “GOP operative sought Clinton emails from Russian hackers, implied he was working with Mike Flynn.” Hennessey wrote in a Foreign Policy article, "It definitely moves the collusion ball down the field.” She wrote a 2019 article for Lawfare titled, “The Mueller Report Demands an Impeachment Inquiry."
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation concluded Russia interfered in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government."
The U.S. attorney picked by Barr to review the Flynn case said in May 2020 that he “concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case." Hennessey wrote in Lawfare that this was “An Ugly Day for the Justice Department.”
When fired FBI lawyer Peter Strzok testified in July 2018, Hennessey defended him by claiming that House Republicans “cannot even conceive of the possibility someone could place duty and institutional integrity over base political and personal interests.”
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Hennessey also wrote a June 2017 article for Lawfare titled, “In Sharing Memos, Comey Did Nothing Wrong as a Former Official and Everything Right as a Whistleblower.” But Horowitz criticized the fired FBI director, saying in 2019 that “what was not permitted was the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive investigative information, obtained during the course of FBI employment, in order to achieve a personally desired outcome.”
Johnson and Grassley asked Garland to tell them by July 13 whether Hennessey has any role in Durham’s inquiry, whether she has access to any aspects of Durham’s work, and whether she will be recused from the Durham matter.