WASHINGTON — House Republicans escalated their monthslong standoff with the Justice Department, saying the FBI hasn't adequately addressed bias within the agency and threatening to hold top department officials in contempt — or even impeach them.
The stepped-up criticism followed the department's internal watchdog report, released last week, criticizing the FBI's handling of the 2016 probe into Democrat Hillary Clinton's emails. It said political bias didn't affect the outcome of the investigation that eventually cleared her.
Bolstered by President Donald Trump, some Republicans say there's no way that bias against then-candidate Trump found among some employees didn't taint the Clinton probe — and, by extension, special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump's Republican campaign and Russia.
At a House hearing Tuesday, Republicans angrily asked Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz how anti-Trump texts found between some employees who worked on the Clinton probe didn't influence the outcome. They also complained that they have not yet received some of the documents they have demanded from the department.
"We can't survive with a justice system we don't trust," said Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Horowitz said in the report and repeated at the hearing that he had concluded the outcome of the investigation was determined by prosecutors' assessment of the facts, not by bias.
Democrats accused the Republicans of trying to distract from or undermine the Mueller investigation by focusing on a few employees who were biased. Several Democrats talked about children separated from their parents at the border, asking why the committee's focus was still on the candidate who lost the presidency in 2016 instead of on current crises.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said Republicans were stuck in a "time warp." Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California noted that the Judiciary Committee oversees immigration issues and should be focused on that.
Trump, who falsely claimed last week that the report exonerated him in the Russia probe, took the opposite view. In a speech to the National Federation of Independent Business on Tuesday, Trump said Democrats "want to focus on immigration because they want to keep the cameras away from the hearings."
The inspector general report did not touch on the Russia investigation.
The outrage in the wake of the inspector general's report is the latest in a series of complaints from Republicans about the FBI. Multiple committees are investigating the agency's actions in 2016 related to the Clinton email probe and the beginning of the investigation into Russian election meddling and whether Trump's campaign was involved. Mueller took over the Russia investigation last year and is also investigating whether Trump obstructed justice.
As part of their investigations, Republicans have requested more than a million documents. The Justice Department has provided some of them, but GOP lawmakers say they haven't provided enough — leading to the threats of contempt or impeachment. House Speaker Paul Ryan has backed the document requests, and he led a meeting last week with three committee chairmen and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to try to resolve the issue.
A person familiar with the speaker's meeting said Ryan and the other Republicans made clear to the Justice Department that they need to comply with the requests or "face consequences from the whole House." The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not public.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview Sunday with Maria Bartiromo of the Fox Business Network that the deadline is "this week" and that if they don't get the documents in time, "there's going to be hell to pay."
The relationship between the Justice Department and Nunes has been particularly tense. Nunes has demanded multiple sensitive documents as he has investigated, among other things, whether the FBI abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act when prosecutors and agents in 2016 applied for and received a secret warrant to monitor the communications of a Trump campaign associate.
Recently Nunes requested documents related to an informant who spoke to members of the Trump campaign during the election as the FBI's Russia investigation began. Rosenstein has now held three classified briefings with congressional leaders on that topic, and the department says it has provided those members with documents during those briefings. But Nunes is still unsatisfied, telling The Associated Press after the third briefing last week that he wants the entire intelligence committee to see the documents and "my patience is out."
The documents he is requesting are classified, so Nunes has not described them publicly.