A year after President Donald Trump picked former California Rep. Darrell Issa to run the US Trade and Development Agency, a Senate hearing to consider the nomination was postponed over how to handle questions raised in his FBI file.
In front of Issa, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, pushed for the public hearing to turn to a private session in which every member on the panel could learn of confidential information that only he and chairman Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican, knew to save Issa from any “embarrassment or harm.”
“There’s information in his FBI background investigation that concerns me greatly, and that I believe members may find problematic, and potentially disqualifying for Senate confirmation,” Menendez said. “I firmly believe that every member of this committee should have the opportunity to review that information.”
The panel held a vote. While Risch could have proceeded, a split between all Democrats and Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican of Kentucky, and all other Republicans gave him pause. Paul said that Menendez’s motion was a “courtesy” to Issa and called Risch’s process “terrible,” since the senators could learn of potentially sensitive material about the nominee at the same time as the public.
After the 11-to-11 vote, Risch called for a short break and met with Issa, Menendez and others. When Risch returned to the hearing room on Capitol Hill, Issa did not. Risch then called for Issa’s hearing to be postponed so that all senators on the panel could review the file.
Risch told CNN, “I saw nothing in the FBI files that would be a disqualification, but you know, everybody views things differently.” The chairman added that Issa “admits” that he was “the world’s worst private” when he served in the Army during the 1970s and had “indiscretions” when he was younger.
In an interview with CNN, Issa said that Risch’s comments were “pretty close to quotes,” mentioning a damaging San Francisco Chronicle article probing his Army record published a few days before he lost the California Senate Republican primary in 1998.
Issa said that, to his knowledge, Menendez’s concerns with his file regard conduct from long ago that’s already public.
“Senator Menendez has only brought up — and perhaps it’s anecdotal but it’s what he chose to bring up — my being disciplined for false ID when I was 17,” Issa said.
“I was a Boy Scout, but I wasn’t the perfect Boy Scout, so to speak, as a young man,” Issa added. “I’ve dealt with that for 20 years in public life.”
The former congressman said that “the problem” is that Menendez has decided “there’s no possible” redemption for him after his long career in Congress. “I don’t think the other members of the Senate would look at things I may or may not have done wrong in my youth as automatically making me ineligible to help in this Administration half a century later,” Issa said.
Menendez “willfully obstructed the hearing, forced it to an end,” added Issa. “Sen. Risch, quite frankly, caved when there was no reason to cave. I was happy to answer any and all questions.”
Issa also said he “repeatedly” tried to meet with Menendez to discuss whatever concerns he may have.
“I have done everything, including approach him at Morton’s over cigars, to try to get him to meet with me and if he had concerns to express them,” said Issa. “He was unwilling to and remains unwilling to meet with me.”
A Senate aide replied that the Foreign Relations committee considers “hundreds of nominations” and neither Risch nor Menendez is “required nor able to meet with every nominee.”
Issa may have a backup plan if his nomination doesn’t advance through the Senate. Three weeks ago, he launched an exploratory committee to run for a congressional seat now held by another California Republican, Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is facing federal corruption charges.
The former chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Issa was a constant nuisance to the Obama administration, overseeing investigations and contentious hearings into the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and on the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, amid other issues.
Issa was first elected to the House in 2000. He served until he decided not to seek reelection last year. Issa, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, represented a Southern California seat that flipped to the Democrats along with a handful of others in 2018. His old district adjoined Hunter’s, a safer seat for Republicans.
In June, Hunter’s wife Margaret pleaded guilty to conspiring with her husband to “knowingly and willingly” convert more than $200,000 in campaign funds for personal use. She has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran, has served in the House since his election in 2008, when his father retired and gave up the seat. He has asserted that he and his wife were targeted by the Department of Justice for political reasons.
California’s filing deadline for the race is in early December.
When asked if he thought his nomination was dead, Issa said that the decision is left up to others. “I’m deeply disappointed that I wasn’t able to have those questions asked and answered in open session or in closed session — either way,” Issa said.
“It is as it is,” he added. “The Senate is pretty dysfunctional. I served 18 years in the House so I (have) first-hand knowledge that the Senate is where things go to die.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Maeve Reston contributed to this report.