SACRAMENTO — California Rep. Darrell Issa, an enthusiastic backer of Donald Trump — and the past chair of the House Oversight committee who once termed the Obama administration “the most corrupt in history” — Saturday called on Congress to “show leadership” by being equally vigilant and demanding in its oversight of the Trump Administration.
“My view is: it’s extremely important that Congress point the guns at the same direction that they were pointed,” said Issa, who as the powerful House Oversight chair was a GOP pitbull who lead dozens of headline-making investigations on Obama administration matters ranging from the “Fast and Furious” gun sting to Benghazi and IRS’ oversight of grassroots conservative organizations.
Under the Trump White House, Republicans must continue to “demand what we were demanding: transparency, accountability,” Issa said in an interview with POLITICO. “We do need a government that is accountable to us.
“And this is the best time to show leadership…..we need to seize the opportunity and really push hard to have access so that no sacred cows are protected,” he said. “For credibility, we have to hold this president to the level of transparency that the last president took every effort to thwart.”
The comments came just 24 hours after Issa called for a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into the Trump camp’s pre-election contacts with Russia.
Issa’s eyebrow-raising comments suggest the congressman, long a conservative darling in California, is is undergoing a political evolution — or may have gotten a wake-up call from constituents after his enthusiastic backing of Trump nearly ended his political career in this solidly blue state last November.
In November, the eight-term Republican emerged just 1,621 votes — less than a percentage point — ahead of Democratic political neophyte retired Marine Colonel Doug Applegate, who has already declared his intention to challenge Issa in the 2018 midterms.
At a luncheon address to hundreds at the statewide GOP convention at the Hyatt Regency Saturday, Issa delivered a conciliatory message to the GOP grassroots, telling them that the best hope for GOP gains in California is to reach out to Democrats and independents, and listen to their concerns.
“Let’s forget the past of Barack Hussein Obama..let’s open a new book,’’ he told them. “We do believe in free speech…we do believe that the other side should be heard…that’s the Republican Party I belong to, it’s the one I believe in.”
“Our future will be in no small part based on being the party that listens,” he said.
But Issa did not address the potentially incendiary topic of the Russian investigation before the crowd of party activists.
Later, in an interview, he told POLITICO that whether Russia conferred with members of the Trump Administration — as well as who leaked the information to media, perhaps illegally, and how to keep Russia from interfering in future elections — are all important questions and must all be investigated.
On Friday, he said on HBO’s “Real Time” that “you cannot have somebody, a friend of mine Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who is an appointee.”
“You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office to take — not just to recuse. You can’t just give it to your deputy. That’s another political appointee,” he said.
Issa allowed that “there may or may not be fault” by some of the Trump associates, but he insisted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutality toward political enemies highlighted the need for such a probe.
Democrats insist Issa’s previously hard partisan message is softening because he’s confronting a new political reality: his 49th Congressional district, which straddles northern San Diego and Orange County, is home to a growing Latino electorate, and a rise in the ranks of independent voters, which have made Issa vulnerable in what was once a GOP bastion.
Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Issa’s comments confirm that “Double speak Darrell” is the worst type of political opportunist. His words have little meaning after spending the last year as President Trump’s biggest cheerleader.”
Applegate, already in campaign mode, told POLITICO on Saturday that he, too, would support the appointment of a special prosecutor but that “I doubt his choice of a special prosecutor would be the same as mine.”
“Interesting stuff that’s going on with Darrell,” Applegate said, suggesting Issa is seeking to reshape his image since “the RNC has put him on their list of endangered species.”
“I’ve never seen that Darrell Issa before,” he said.
Issa said Saturday his views about transparency under Trump are not shape-shifting or political evolution — simply an extension of his career-long fight for transparency. “Eric Holder should lose his law license,” he said. “I haven’t changed my views on the last administration.”
And, he said, he is not fearful of the political fallout. “I’m a senior member of Congress. It doesn’t matter if the voters keep me after these two years,” he said. “I have absolutely nothing to lose — except a reputation that I will hold government accountable.”
But the congressman’s former spokesman, veteran GOP strategist Kurt Bardella, said Issa’s call for transparency “doesn’t mean wrongdoing occurred — but the only way to know for certain that everything is above board is to get the politics out of the equation and have an investigation the American people can trust.”
Some California Republicans at the statewide confab this weekend said privately that Issa’s last election represented a wake-up call for the congressman — the richest member of the House of Representatives, and one who was perceived by some as losing touch with his seat while he basked in the national spotlight in Washington.
Issa’s GOP successor as chair on the Oversight committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, has appeared to suggest Issa was a showboat. “Darrell Issa didn’t do many reports,” Chaffetz told Roll Call. “[He] did big press releases..this is not the Jason Chaffetz show.”
Issa’s remarks were met with mixed reaction at the statewide gathering of the California Republican Party in Sacramento. Like many Republicans in Washington, John Moorlach, a GOP state senator from Orange County, said an independent inquiry would be a “waste of time.”
“There’s no doubt Darrell’s in trouble,” Moorlach said. “Look how his last race went with Applegate.”
Steve Frank, president of the Conservative Republicans of California, said an independent investigation would be counterproductive. “When you create an independent counsel to investigate anything, going back to the Nixon days, you get more heat than light,” he said.
Still, he said Issa “has a good understanding of the concerns of the American people,” and he doubted his proposal for an independent inquiry is motivated by politics.
“I think he’s very sincere in suggesting what he’s suggesting,” Frank said.
Many rank-and-file Republicans are convinced, however, that Trump associates had no inappropriate contact with Russia, and they believe an inquiry could settle the issue.
“Everybody’s accusing him, so if he does that , they’ll find there was no truth in it,” said Carol Hadley, a delegate from Stockton. “There’s nothing to hide. Why not?”
Randall Jordan, chairman of the Tea Party California Caucus, said “a healthy inquiry on both sides is good. We need to be held to the same values that we hold on everybody.”