U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley is the king of understated code-speak. But Monday was no time for parsing words as indictments and plea deals rolled out of the probe into Russian interference in last year's presidential election.
Either Grassley is willing to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from President Donald Trump or he's not.
Grassley wasn't entirely mute after Mueller announced charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a plea deal with former adviser George Papadopoulos. But Grassley's position atop the Senate Judiciary Committee basically barred a standard "no comment." Instead, in classic Grassley fashion, he drove headlong into the weeds while offering a smidgen of substance served with a twist of deflection and confusion.
"As always, it's important to let our legal system run its course," Grassley's statement reads. "While we don't have any more information regarding the current status of the special counsel's investigation other than what has already been made public, it's good to see the Justice Department taking seriously its responsibility to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act."
He then went on about enforcement of FARA, which requires disclosure from those working with foreign entities, which former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is accused of violating. Nowhere did Grassley mention Manafort, Trump or the campaign. He even offered the old "Democrats do it, too" defense. Later Monday, Grassley turned tail and fled a press conference before reporters could ask about the news of the day.
So, in essence, the only statement with any political weight was "let our legal system run its course."
What does that mean, exactly? And, of greater import, is he prepared to push back should Trump succumb to his rage and crush Mueller's investigation, a possibility that, in less partisan times, would create a legitimate constitutional crisis? Grassley intentionally ducked the matter altogether, a troubling signal to send to a White House with a history of leaning on investigators.
Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wasn't afraid to demand Mueller's investigation continue without interference. Same goes for Utah peer Sen. Mike Lee. Neither of these men are liberals. Both have a long conservative records. And yet, unlike Grassley, they were willing to unequivocally demand that the White House leave Mueller to his work. It's a testament to the seriousness of the situation.
A pair of bills would make it much more difficult to fire Mueller. But those two pieces of legislation are basically stalled. Yet, legislation in the House that's gaining traction among Trump's allies would hamper Mueller by starving him of cash. These are the realities of the moment. No matter how uncomfortable, Grassley has a duty to defend the judicial system against political meddling. His politically driven lack of clarity was especially concerning due to his incessant attempts at justifying investigations of Democrats who do not reside in the White House, a transparent effort to deflect and distract.
One cannot stress the importance of this moment. Trump's former campaign chairman, the man who kept twitchy delegates in line at the Republican National Convention, faces a raft of charges, including conspiracy and failing to disclose his work for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That same day, a plea deal with Papadopoulos was made public. Papadopoulos attempted to collude with Kremlin-linked agents and then lied about it.
Grassley is no small fish here. His committee wields oversight authority over the Justice Department. Several of the president's most reactionary partisan allies — who have spent weeks attempting to tarnish Mueller's credentials — again pressed for Mueller's firing. Trump, mind you, couldn't directly sack Mueller. He could, however, summon the ghost of Richard Nixon and purge the Justice Department until he found a lackey who would quash the investigation into Trump's presidential campaign.
But Grassley would rather talk about something — anything — else.
Quad-City Times, another Lee Enterprises publication, Nov. 1.