Republican Rep. Darrell Issa said Russia and its President Vladimir Putin are “evil” at the California Republican Party convention in Sacramento on Saturday, and called for an independent probe into Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election.
President Donald Trump has appointed people “who will unapologetically tell you Russia is evil and we need to have checks against them,” Issa told reporters following a luncheon speech. “That certainly includes an active effort to stop them from interfering with elections all over the world, and certainly thwart them from any activities in the United States and hold people accountable if in fact they have participated in any crime in the United States.”
Issa, a known Barack Obama nemesis and prominent Trump ally, appeared to split with the president over the approach to an investigation into allegations of Russia’s meddling with the U.S. election and potential illegal contacts with Russia among current and former Trump officials.
His comments followed similar remarks he made Friday night, when Issa said on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” that the U.S. should appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation, rather than Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“You cannot have somebody, a friend of mine Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who is an appointee,” he told Maher.
He suggested Saturday, however, that Sessions will pick the special prosecutor.
“I would expect that the attorney general will find a career U.S. attorney and appoint him or her to head to head that up and to do that job in an independent way,” he said. “That’s historically the right way to deal with something like this.”
An appointment by Sessions, however, could undercut the independence of the attorney general’s office and fuel deep Democratic concerns about ties between Trump and Russia, said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.
“This could embolden Senate Democrats – Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein – and give them some oxygen to say that anything that comes from an attorney general’s office is not independent,” McCuan said. “This Russia focus with the FBI and the White House is not a scandal yet, but it’s certainly putting some air on embers that are not yet a fire.”
Top Democrats, including Schumer and Feinstein, have called for an independent probe for weeks.
Issa’s presence in left-leaning California served as a rallying force for Republicans, whose ranks in the state Legislature are vastly overshadowed by Democrats.
Issa used his speech before more than 300 Republicans to bolster support for Trump and actions he’s taken in the five weeks since he took office.
“Some will say that President Trump does not have greatness within him. Some have already said that his Cabinet is made up of rich people whose success doesn’t really matter,” Issa said. “Donald Trump will not change the hearts and minds in 140 characters, although he tries. Donald Trump will succeed because you engage with your neighbors. … You will change hearts and minds.
“And we will change America together.”
To the larger crowd, Issa didn’t address widespread concerns over controversial moves the administration has made on immigration and health care.
Outside the convention at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sacramento, a small group of protesters held up signs that read “hands off our health care” denouncing Republican plans to scrap Obamacare for a yet-to-be-delivered Republican health care law.
Raucous protests have broken out across the state, with many citing concerns over losing access to health care under a Republican administration.
Issa dodged questions about details on a firm Obamacare replacement plan, saying he hadn’t read proposals put forward by his Republican colleagues.
“I haven’t looked at the details of every plan that Republicans are considering,” Issa said. “None has been put before me.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan has outlined a plan that could dramatically alter the way health care is paid for, shifting tax credits to people based on age rather than income. That has drawn ire from those who use the system set up by the Affordable Care Act – particularly low-income people who benefit the Medicaid expansion – who fear losing access to their health care and even steeper insurance costs.
“This is hard,” Issa said. “It’s pretty early in the process to somehow judge that (it’s) all giving money to the rich. It’s not. It’s about dealing with so many people who don’t have enough affordable access to health care.”
Issa’s comments about Russia were in sharp contrast to Trump, who has cast doubt on ties to Russia and Putin. The president tweeted recently that “this Russian connection nonsense is merely an attempt to cover up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”
Issa has held the 49th District congressional seat, a Republican stronghold in Southern California, since 2001. But amid an onslaught of anti-Trump backlash across the Golden State last year, Issa faced the tightest race of his political career.
He defeated Democratic challenger and political newcomer Doug Applegate in November by a razor-thin margin, taking 50.3 percent of the vote to Applegate’s 49.7 percent.
California Republicans welcomed Issa’s call for an independent probe, but downplayed the potential outcome.
Steve Frank, a longtime conservative from Ventura County, said such probes don’t often shed much light on a situation – “but they do bring heat.”
“It’s well-intentioned,” Frank said. “There are a lot of people in Washington that believe significant issues need to be handled by an independent authority. The problem is no one gets the honor of being that authority without going through the political process, without being part of the political process. So, it becomes political from the beginning.”
Republican Carl DeMaio, a talk radio host whose program airs in Issa’s northern San Diego County-centered district, said the congressman is just doing his job.
“Because they have raised the question, and created the issue, it needs to be investigated and put to bed one way or another,” DeMaio said of the alleged Russian interference. “Who can be against getting to the bottom of this?
“But,” DeMaio quipped, “I hope they support an investigation into the Clinton Foundation.”