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Politically vulnerable, Issa walks a tightrope on Trump and Russia - San Diego U-T

by Joshua Stewart

When next year’s midterm elections go into full swing, Rep. Darrell Issa, perhaps the most vulnerable Republican in Congress, will be able to say he was one of the first members of his party to call for an independent investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race.

Likewise, he can note that he pushed for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any such inquiries, and days later the country’s top law enforcement official did just that.

Issa has pointed to these types of stands to demonstrate that he’s not beholden to anyone — even the presidential candidate he supported.

What impact any of this will have on voters is uncertain, but it might give Issa some politically beneficial distance from the Trump administration.

Representing a district that re-elected Issa by a mere 1,621 votes — but where just 43.2 percent backed now-President Donald Trump — has left the congressman in a tough position.

The Vista Republican not only has to show that he wants to hold Trump accountable, but he also has to be careful not upset his party and new president, according to John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College who studies Congress and elections

“I’m sure that if he’d attacked Trump, he’d hear from a lot of the Trump fans in the district, and that’s a prospect that scares Republicans,” he said.

But he can’t go easy on the administration either, Pitney added, given that the 49th District went for Clinton.

Issa is one of 59 incumbent Republicans the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting in 2018, and his challenger from the last election, Doug Applegate, has already announced a re-match.

Issa’s spokesman did not respond to requests for an interview with the congressman.

Kurt Bardella, Issa’s former adviser and spokesman, said the incumbent can’t please everyone all at once, and if he or anyone else in office were to try, they would get into trouble.

“Everyone is in a very awkward position where almost anything you do is going to alienate people no matter what,” Bardella said. “I think the best thing you can do in this situation is to do your job, and communicate that.”

At times, Issa has done this well, Bardella said. The congressman went on “Real Time with Bill Maher” to show that he’s comfortable answering questions from the show’s liberal host in front of a left-leaning studio audience. And he had an impromptu meeting with protesters outside of his office where he answered their questions for 90 minutes to show constituents he’s listening and explain his work in Washington.

“That’s the way to do it,” Bardella said. “Do what you’ve always done. And in Darrell’s case, be consistent with your body of work and overall philosophy of government.”

The protesters have requested a more formal town hall meetintg with Issa, with no success.

The district, which straddles coastal south Orange and north San Diego counties is still solidly Republican but has grown increasingly Democratic. Voters backed him, barely, but not Trump, who Issa supported and called the “obvious choice” over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Issa, who is known for high-profile inquiries of President Barack Obama and his administration, made a campaign pledge to hold all politicians accountable, regardless of party. And after a two-year absence, he’s back on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a panel he previously led.

But in a twist that defied polls and expectations, Clinton lost, and Issa was sent back to the House with the expectation to hold all accountable, including the new administration.But that he could alienate himself from Washington’s conservatives if he growls at his own party’s president.

The congressman taken a softer stance on transparency and accountability since Trump has been in office, and backed away from a hard-line approach against lying to Congress, Pitney said.

When Democratic politicians were under Issa’s microscope, and Obama was president, the congressman threatened criminal investigations, subpoenas, and demanded that government officials be fired.

He suspected that Clinton lied during testimony before Congress about the attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and said he would have subpoenaed her to provide additional testimony.

He called on the CIA to investigate its own employees for criminal wrongdoing after the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said that he believed that the intelligence agency’s employees had lied to the committee.

He also threatened to investigate Kathleen Sebelius when she led the Health and Human Services Agency after he concluded she had given Congress “false and misleading” testimony.

He also wrote a letter that asked Obama to fire Director of National Intelligence James clapper, for “lying to Congress under oath” during Senate testimony.

He did not made similar demands when it was learned National Security Advisor Michael Flynn did not disclose conversations he had with Russian officials to the FBI. Likewise, Issa did not say there was a need for any sort of criminal inquiry after it was revealed that contrary to statements Attorney General Jeff Sessions made during his confirmation hearing, Sessions as a senator met with the Russian ambassador.

Sessions said his testimony was accurate, if poorly worded, because he intended to convey that he did not speak with any Russian officials as a member of the Trump campaign.

“Opposition researchers are going to have a lot of fun with him,” Pitney said of Issa. “In the not-to-distant past, he took a very hard line on lying to Congress.”

Issa has been consistent, Bardella said. He’s committed to making sure government runs efficiently, transparently, and without corruption. But he’s also committed to process, and when he led the Oversight Committee he tried to get any subjects of inquiries to voluntarily cooperate before taking more forceful actions.

“It made for a good headline and spectator commentary, but Darrell tried to emphasize during his tenure on Oversight that there is a process that can be more effective,” Bardella said.

The Democratic campaign committee says that Issa has shied away from holding Trump accountable and that his position has varied.

On Feb. 24 he appeared on the Maher show and the host asked the congressman if he thought that there should be an independent prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, and if the attorney general, one of Trump’s surrogates, should recuse himself.

“You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office,” Issa said, adding that Sessions should step aside for the inquiry. The comment gained national attention and put Issa ahead of other Republicans who would make similar demands.

Then he told CBS News that it makes sense to call for a special prosecutor when there has been an allegation of a crime, but Trump’s administration had not been accused of that.

After making strong statements on Maher’s show, Issa was backing down, the Democratic committee said.

“Congressman Issa has spent the last year serving as one of President Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, so there was never any question that he would come crawling back,” spokesman Tyler Law said.

Since then, Issa has avoided using the term “special prosecutor,” and said that investigations should be done differently and more effectively now that Trump is in office.

“President Obama and Attorney General Lynch allowed obstruction and unanswered questions from the American people to linger, clouding their work and calling into question the impartiality of the FBI’s findings,” he said in a statement, which called for an “independent review” of the election.

“These mistakes must not be repeated.”

Twenty-four hours later at a House Judiciary Committee meeting, Issa abandoned the term “special prosecutor” completely.

“As the gentleman from New York knows, there is no such thing as a special prosecutor,” Issa said, referring to his colleague, Rep. Jerry Nadler, R-New York. Issa had used the term “special prosecutor” at least three times to call for scrutiny of the Obama administration, including at least once in a statement on his congressional website.

Issa and other Republicans on the committee opposed a resolution asking the Justice Department to give Congress documents about investigations into Trump’s ties with foreign interests as well as amendments that would have required Sessions to recuse himself. Issa noted that he had “called for an independent review of Russia. I believe that is the best path to get the American people the answers they deserve.”

The nomenclature might have changed, but Issa’s intentions have remained the same, according to Bardella, who said Issa wants an outside party like an inspector general with complete independence to handle politically sensitive investigations.

“You can’t expect people to self-investigate themselves, fundamentally,” he said.

Issa has talked about holding Trump accountable, but he hasn’t made any demands with real teeth, Pitney said.

“At the moment, I can’t imagine that anyone in the Trump White House is worrying about him,” he said. “But if he were to call for Sessions’ resignation and call for concrete action, that’s where he might get their attention in a bad way.”

His stances have critics questioning whether Issa is sincere about getting to the bottom of Russian interference in the election and Trump’s ties with that country, or is just paying lip service to constituents in his district who have pressured him to hold the administration accountable.

“It’s really hard to tell for me whether he’s calling for the special prosecutor and then backtracking on that because he’s trying to gauge what’s going on in Washington” and his district at the same time, said Lisa Margolin, an organizer with Indivisible 49, a group that has staged protests to get members of Congress to oppose Trump and his agenda.

Allison Stratton