(CNN) — The GOP-led House committee on the alleged “weaponization” of the federal government kicked off its first public hearing Thursday with a witness list that suggests Republicans on the panel will push a popular narrative among conservatives that has been disputed by federal officials.
The hearing was split into two sessions, featuring a swath of current and former lawmakers, former FBI officials and legal experts. They discussed allegations of how the government has been weaponized against Republicans, as well as the general belief among some conservatives that federal officials and mainstream media have been working to silence the right.
“We’re focused on the whole weaponization of government, and the idea that the government is not working for the American people,” subcommittee chairman Jim Jordan told CNN ahead of the hearing. “The government is supposed to protect the First Amendment, not have, as Mr. (Jonathan) Turley said, ‘censorship by surrogate,'” he said, referencing one of the witnesses slated for Thursday’s hearing who is a George Washington University Law Center professor.
The Ohio Republican continued, “I’m sure those will be some of the things that will come up in the course of the hearing,” he added, referencing a line from one of the witnesses GOP members have called.
Democrats on the panel, however, tell CNN they reject the premise of the weaponization subcommittee itself — and much of their time will be spent disputing GOP messaging.
“We have an overall strategy, which is to debunk the misrepresentations that are sure to be coming from it,” said Rep. Dan Goldman, a freshman Democrat from New York. “My understanding is that Sens. Grassley and Johnson are going to speak, and I’m glad they are. I hope they talk about how they used their Senate committees to weaponize Russian propaganda and disinformation in 2020.”
“I think our intention is to make sure that the American people are aware of the actual truth of the matter, and not whatever partisan misinformation that Republicans are going to peddle,” Goldman added.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland was called as one of the Democrats’ witnesses. He told CNN that “one basic question is whether weaponization is the target of the committee or if weaponization is the purpose of the committee” — previewing a potential line of attack.
In a new memo released Thursday ahead of the subcommittee’s first hearing, the White House called the subpanel a “Fox News reboot of the House Un-American Activities Committee” and “a political stunt that weaponizes Congress to carry out the priorities of extreme MAGA Republicans in Congress.”
White House Oversight spokesman Ian Sams writes that the committee “plans to weaponize the MAGA agenda against their perceived political enemies” and is “choosing to make it their top priority to go down the rabbit hole of debunked conspiracy theories about a ‘deep state’ instead of taking a deep breath and deciding to work with the President and Democrats in Congress to improve Americans’ everyday lives.”
The first panel of witnesses testifying before the committee included GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, as well as former congresswoman from Hawaii and ex-Democrat Tulsi Gabbard.
Gabbard has regularly appeared on Fox News since leaving Congress and frequently uses the network to accuse the FBI and the Justice Department of targeting political opponents of the Biden administration.
Grassley and Johnson have both previously attacked the Justice Department for how it has handled its investigation into Hunter Biden and its approach to addressing threats against school administrators.
Grassley has also accused the Justice Department of seeking to criminalize the First Amendment right of parents to protest school policies. The Justice Department has denied doing so, pointing to a line in the memo acknowledging that “spirited debate about policy matters is protected under or Constitution.”
Grassley, Johnson and Gabbard each claimed that the FBI and other facets of the federal government have been colluding with mainstream media about keeping certain facts and stories hidden from the public, while promoting others — and that such alleged coordination has been biased against conservatives.
Raskin, meanwhile, accused Republicans on the subcommittee of hypocrisy, pointing to a series of examples in which he claimed former President Donald Trump used his power to reward his most loyal allies at the Justice Department and tried to influence their decision-making process. “If weaponization of the DOJ has any meaning, this it!” said Raskin.
None of the witnesses took any questions.
The witnesses’ previous comments regarding the politization of the Biden Justice Department suggest that the committee plans to push a narrative that is popular among the right, but has been publicly disputed by the FBI. There is little public evidence supporting such claims, which Jordan says are backed up by unnamed whistleblowers. Some allegations have been debunked by fact-checkers or news reports, and Jordan has falsely claimed for years that there is an anti-GOP “deep state” within the FBI.
Democrats, meanwhile, plan to showcase Raskin’s testimony, who is the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee — which is investigating a series of polarizing issues such as Hunter Biden and the former and current presidents’ possession of classified documents. Raskin, a former member of the House select committee on the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill insurrection, and a key fixture in both of Trump’s impeachment trials, has been a crucial messenger for the left in pushing back against the GOP’s claims and controversial probes.
The second panel of witnesses featured former FBI special agents Nicole Parker and Thomas Baker, as well as Turley and the Raben Group’s Elliot Williams.
Parker wrote an op-ed last month detailing how she left the bureau after over 10 years of service because she believed it became “politically weaponized.”
Baker, meanwhile, published a book in December 2022 titled, “The Fall of the FBI: How a Once Great Agency Became a Threat to Democracy.”
Turley was a prominent figure during Trump’s impeachment trials often referenced by the right.
Williams, a CNN analyst, is appearing on behalf of the Democrats. Williams previously served as deputy assistant attorney general for legislative affairs at the Department of Justice, where worked to secure Senate confirmation for both Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democratic member of the subcommittee, cast doubt on the effectiveness of Republicans’ strategy, telling CNN, “I fail to see what they think they’re going to accomplish by those kinds of witnesses. … I don’t know that that adds anything to their credibility or making their case. I’ll leave it at that.”
But Democrats are also cognizant of one potential disadvantage ahead of Thursday’s hearing — the fact they have not yet met as a group while the Republicans have. Connolly told CNN that, given they were just named as member of the panel last week, they have not yet had the opportunity to begin preparing for the onslaught of investigations GOP members have planned.
Laying the groundwork
GOP subcommittee members told CNN the purpose of the first hearing was largely to outline the panel’s investigate plans in the months ahead, and set the stage for what viewers should anticipate from the weekly-hearings the committee is hoping to hold.
“Chairman Jordan wants to introduce people to what the committee hopes to accomplish, and the scope of the problem. Having these senators speak with authority helps set it. They won’t be questioned as witnesses, but they are testifying as to their observations,” GOP Rep. Darrell Issa said.
“I’m not sure we’re going to learn what we need to learn about what has happened inside government agencies in sufficient detail with these witnesses, but I think they can kind of cast the vision,” Republican subcommittee member Dan Bishop of North Carolina told CNN.
Bishop said he hopes the work of this panel will pave the way for legislation to address what he claimed were agencies “going off rogue.”
Jordan and House Judiciary Committee staff have met with series of whistleblowers behind closed doors this week for transcribed interviews regarding claims about the politicization of the Justice Department. The interviews will serve as the basis for much of the subcommittee’s probe, sources with direct knowledge of the interviews tell CNN.
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