WASHINGTON (CN) – The House Intelligence Committee urged a federal judge Monday to authorize its subpoena targeting the political-research firm that sponsored a salacious dossier on President Donald Trump.
Commissioned by the Washington firm Fusion GPS before the 2016 election, the dossier put together by former British intelligent agent Christopher Steele claims that the Russian government has several years’ worth of compromising information on Trump. Claims such as that the Russians have a “pee tape” of Trump have not been verified, but several national-intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia tried to interfere in the election to ensure Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.
The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed top Fusion officials, but partners Peter Fritsch and Thomas Catan invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a closed-door hearing last week.
Days later, Fusion brought a federal complaint in Washington to quash a subpoena of its bank by Congressman David Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the Intelligence Committee.
The House Office of General Counsel intervened in the case over the weekend and argued in an Oct. 23 opposition brief that Fusion lacks a legal rationale for blocking the subpoena.
“The fact that Plaintiff does not approve of the Committee’s investigation, the Chairman’s role in issuing the subpoena, or the Committee’s efforts to obtain relevant information does not create a legal rationale for this Court to grant the relief sought,” the 54-page brief states.
Signed by General Counsel Thomas Hungar, the opposition brief says that the committee wants to understand all aspects of the Trump dossier, such as who paid for it, who received it, and what steps were taken to corroborate its content.
The committee also wants to know whether the FBI relied on the dossier in its counterintelligence investigation of Russian election meddling.
“The key to answering many of these questions lies with information in the possession of Plaintiff, as well as records of one or more Fusion accounts at Defendant Bank,” the brief states.
Referencing a June 9, 2016, meeting between at Trump Tower between three Russian individuals and Donald Trump Jr., the committee also says it has obtained information suggesting that the Russians and Fusion are linked.
“Based on this information, the Committee’s investigation seeks to investigate the extent of those ties and the potential relationship to the Russian active measures campaign,” the brief says.
Attorneys for Fusion with the firms Zuckerman Spaeder and Cunningham Levy Muse declined to comment on the case beyond what’s contained in Fusion’s Oct. 23 reply brief.
There, Fusion disputes the understanding the committee says it seeks in relation to the dossier.
“Despite this purpose, the subpoena does not contain the words ‘dossier,’ ‘Russia,’ ‘Steele’ or any other that would tie the subpoena to the ‘understanding’ the Committee supposedly seeks,” the reply brief says.
Fusion argued that the bank subpoena would cause irreparable harm by revealing the identities of its clients, contractors and vendors, most of whom the firm said are not relevant to the investigation, along with confidential attorney work product.
The firm says that Nunes, a close ally of President Donald Trump, signed the subpoena after his recusal from the investigation following confirmation by the Office of Congressional Ethics in April that it was investigating allegations that Nunes disclosed classified material without authorization.
Nunes has denied the allegations, and the committee’s opposition brief claims that Fusion misunderstood the recusal. On April 6, the brief states, Nunes announced that he would cede temporary control of the investigation to Rep. Mike Conway, R-Texas, but that he would continue to fulfill his other duties as chairman.
“Nothing in his statement or elsewhere indicates that he was recusing himself from any involvement in the investigation or relinquishing any of his other powers as the Committee’s Chairman,” the committee’s brief says.
Fusion insisted in its response that Nunes was not authorized to sign the subpoena.
“It is undisputed that no ‘vote of the full committee’ occurred, and Intervenor likewise concedes that neither the chair nor the full committee consulted with the Ranking Minority Member,” the reply brief says.
Fusion claims that enforcement of the subpoena would deter political activity and would chill free speech rights protected under the First Amendment.
“It is a fishing expedition for the names of all [emphasis original] of Plaintiff’s clients and vendors in order to unearth the non-pertinent fact of the names of the clients that paid Plaintiff to engage in political activity – namely, opposition research on Mr. Trump, during the 2016 election,” the firm said in its Oct. 20 complaint.
According to the complaint, Fusion has already changed how it does business under the threat of what the subpoena would disclose.
The lawsuit cites statements made by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who said in a media report that the authority to issue subpoenas should have been delegated to him and Rep. Conway.
But the House Intelligence Committee in its brief says it followed all committee rules in relation to the subpoenas. Citing D.C. Circuit precedent, the committee urged the court to “presume that government officials, such as Members of Congress, will act properly in the conduct of their official duties.”
The committee claims that two months of asking for Fusion’s cooperation, it was forced to issue multiple subpoenas on Oct. 4 after it became clear the firm would not cooperate.
Fusion rejects the assertion that it failed to cooperate, reiterating in its reply brief that Nunes lacked the authority to sign the subpoena.
“It is undisputed that no ‘vote of the full Committee’ occurred, and Intervenor likewise concedes that neither the Chair nor the full Committee consulted with the Ranking Minority Member,” the Oct. 23 reply brief states.
Fusion’s lawsuit says its bank faced an Oct. 23 deadline to comply with the subpoena. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan extended the deadline to Oct. 25 while she considers the case.