What happened to Chuck Grassley?
I’ve heard versions of that question from many people who are old enough to remember when Iowa’s senior senator crafted a reputation for independence by tangling with Reagan administration officials.
But I’d never heard anyone who had worked closely with Grassley raise similar concerns—until this week.
“WADING IN THE BOGS WITH PROVOCATEURS”
Kris Kolesnik offered a devastating take on Grassley’s evolution in a June 13 commentary for The Hill. According to the author’s bio, Kolesnik has worked on federal government oversight for 34 years, including nineteen years as “senior counselor and director of investigations” on Grassley’s staff. He then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, and later served for ten years as an associate inspector general with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Kolesnik began by recalling some of Grassley’s projects from the 1980s and 1990s, informed by professionals who had Watergate-era experience. “Their Rule No. 1 was: Check politics at the door.”
“All of that is a distant memory” for Kolesnik. More recently, “fellow travelers in oversight circles have asked me: What has happened to Grassley? Why has he become so unrecognizably political in his oversight?”
Kolesnik sees the senator “waging political battles” and “wading in the bogs with provocateurs and witnesses who so far seem to be credibility-challenged.”
As a whistleblower magnet, Grassley finds himself in the middle of an apocalyptic struggle against the mythical Deep State. His first Armageddon was with Hillary and Uranium One. Few even remember that spectacular loser.
I admit, I had forgotten how Grassley spent years hyping allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced the State Department’s approval of a Canadian company’s sale to a Russian state-owned company. Even in 2019, he was citing Uranium One as proof of a “double standard” whereby Donald Trump’s campaign activities were investigated, but not Hillary Clinton’s.
“HIS REPUTATION AND CREDIBILITY ARE AT STAKE”
Kolesnik argued that the senator is now going out on a limb to battle Hunter Biden and Joe Biden. “I say out on a limb because he is throwing around allegations as if he has irrefutable evidence. His reputation and credibility are at stake.” He’s not convinced Grassley will succeed in proving federal officials interfered with an investigation of the president’s son.
Even more risky is Grassley’s dalliance with an FBI FD-1023 document as his point of departure against the president. It’s a document of unverified information identified by a whistleblower as being teeming with specificity about a bribery allegation against Joe Biden while vice president — probably at least as much specificity as the Steele Dossier, which contained alleged political dirt against then-candidate Trump, and which Grassley railed against for months as lacking credibility. […] Already, the document’s contents are being credibly challenged.
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump described those bribery allegations as “transparently thin” in a June 13 analysis: “Republicans are hyping a secondhand allegation from a single source—an allegation that was in the hands of Attorney General William P. Barr’s Justice Department in mid-2020 without leading to criminal charges or, it seems, any specific investigation.” Bump continued,
It is not hard to figure out why this is unfolding the way it is unfolding. There’s an enormous appetite on the right at the moment for evidence that the FBI and Justice Department are deploying a double standard or that Biden deserves to face criminal charges just as much as former president Donald Trump. That provides the space that [House Oversight Committee Chair James] Comer and Grassley are filling, running far ahead of their extremely limited evidence.
As Trump faces 37 felony charges related to mishandling classified documents, obstructing justice, and making false statements, Grassley has used his platform to hype that alleged double standard—even as he claims not to have read the federal indictment of the former president.
“TWO STANDARDS OF JUSTICE”
Over the years, Grassley has repeatedly used false equivalences to downplay Trump’s wrongdoing. For instance, after Trump led a wide-ranging conspiracy to subvert the peaceful transfer of power to Biden—pressuring state and federal officials and eventually unleashing an angry mob on the Capitol—Grassley characterized the January 6 objections to the electoral college count as “not unprecedented.” His logic? A handful of Democrats in Congress had objected to electoral college votes in 2001, 2005, and 2017.
When an indictment of Trump appeared imminent last week, Grassley and Comer went on Fox News to accuse the FBI of “covering for President Biden.” The senator promised to keep pressing for the release of the 1023 document and complained the agency was treating Congress “like a second-class citizen.”
Three days after the federal indictment was unsealed, Grassley told Congressional reporter Joe Perticone he had not read the document, since he is “not a legal analyst.” The same day, he delivered a 9-minute speech on the Senate floor demanding that the Justice Department and FBI release that 1023 document implicating the Bidens “without unnecessary redactions.”
Grassley claimed that Attorney General Merrick Garland “signed off on prosecuting Trump for conduct similar to what Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton engaged in.” If he had read the indictment, he would have seen voluminous evidence that Trump knowingly retained and sought to conceal classified documents, and was recorded showing some highly sensitive material to people without security clearances. Neither Clinton nor Biden has been accused of anything comparable.
Never mind the facts: Grassley is on a mission.
Partial transcript of the speech as entered into the Congressional Record (Grassley didn’t deviate from the script in any significant way on the Senate floor):
Two standards of justice in this country will turn our constitutional Republic upside down. Thanks to the political infection within the Biden Justice Department and the FBI, we are well along the road for that to happen.
This senator will do all that he can to fight that political infection in the Department of Justice and the FBI. You fight it, then, by bringing transparency to what this government does. The public’s business ought to be public. Transparency brings accountability. […]
It is clear that the Justice Department and FBI will use every resource to investigate Candidate Trump, President Trump, and former President Trump. Based on the facts known to the Congress and the public, it’s clear that the Justice Department and the FBI haven’t nearly had the same laser focus on the Biden family. Special Counsel Jack Smith has used a recording against former President Trump. Well, what is U.S. Attorney Weiss doing with respect to these alleged Joe and Hunter Biden recordings that are apparently relevant to a high-stakes bribery scheme?
Another false equivalence. The federal indictment quotes from a recording of Trump’s own voice, telling people with no security clearance: “Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this.” On same recording, Trump admitted he hadn’t declassified that particular military document, which was “highly confidential.”
In contrast, the “alleged Joe and Hunter Biden recordings” Grassley alluded to on the Senate floor are not in the possession of federal prosecutors. They don’t even appear to be in the possession of the FBI source whose information generated the 1023 document. Rather, the FBI source claimed the same foreign national who allegedly bribed the Biden family had also recorded conversations with them. Comer himself acknowledged in a Newsmax interview that they can’t confirm such recordings exist.
Back to Grassley’s Senate floor speech from June 12:
Getting a full and complete 1023 is critical for the American people to know and understand the true nature of the document and to hold the Justice Department and the FBI accountable. It is also important for asserting constitutional congressional oversight powers against an out-of-control executive branch that is obviously drunk with political infection.
Mixed metaphors aside—can one be drunk with an infection?—it’s remarkable to hear Grassley fulminate about the executive branch withholding one document containing unverified claims. He was silent for years as the Trump administration ignored or refused to comply with about 20 subpoenas from Congressional committees.
During a June 14 conference call with some Iowa reporters, Grassley accused special counsel Jack Smith of political bias and drew more false equivalences: “Whether or not it’s Hillary or whether it’s Trump, secure documents ought to be secure.”
As for the specific charges against Trump, the senator declined to express an opinion. Stephen Gruber-Miller reported for the Des Moines Register,
“The governor and the two senators and the four Congress members from Iowa want everybody to feel free to come to Iowa to campaign,” Grassley said. “And so I’m going to leave the political aspect of this up to the voters.”
If only Grassley were leaving politics up to the voters. On the contrary, his latest actions validate everything his longtime staffer Kolesnik wrote about “the new Chuck Grassley,” who abandoned “guardrails handed down by the oversight professionals” and now closely associates “with MAGA elements in Congress.”
Let’s also be clear that Grassley’s feigned neutrality in the GOP presidential race is a farce. It’s not a neutral posture to denounce the Biden administration, discredit the special counsel, and discourage any discussion of evidence implicating Trump. Like Governor Kim Reynolds, Grassley is sending a clear message to fellow Republicans: do not grant any legitimacy to this prosecution.
But whereas Reynolds issued one written statement about the Trump indictment and moved on, Grassley is working overtime to deflect attention from Trump’s actions to the Biden’s administration’s supposed abuse of the justice system. It’s not the first, second, or third time the senator has run interference for the former president—and it probably won’t be the last.
Top image: Senator Chuck Grassley delivers a lengthy floor speech demanding that the FBI make public a document containing bribery allegations against President Joe Biden. Screenshot from video the senator’s office uploaded to YouTube on June 12.