Why Rep. Darrell Issa is breaking with his fellow Republicans on the Russian hacking probe

Guest Rep. Darrell Issa, right, speaks on a panel with host Bill Maher, left, and guest Fran Lebowitz, contributing editor at Vanity Fair, during HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" in Los Angeles.
(Janet Van Ham / Associated Press)

Over the weekend, Darrell Issa did something that no other Republican congressman has done.

Sitting for an interview with HBO’s Bill Maher, the longtime Vista Republican said he believed that a prosecutor needed to investigate Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election and that Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who was involved in President Trump’s campaign, should not be that prosecutor.

“You cannot have somebody — a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions — who was on the campaign and who is an appointee,” Issa said. “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office.”


He backed that up Monday with a statement calling for a fully independent review of Russian attempts to interfere in the election, saying there is too much speculation and assumption.

“An investigation is not the same as an assertion of specific wrongdoing, it’s following the facts where they lead so that American people can know what may or may not have taken place,” Issa said.

It makes him one of the most prominent Republicans in the country to call for an independent investigation into what Russia was trying to do during the election and who knew about it, but the only one to call for a special prosecutor to do it. He added to his statement on Monday in an interview with CBS News, emphasizing that no person is currently under suspicion, which is what would usually prompt calls for a special prosecutor.

Issa’s position still puts him at odds with Republican leaders in the House, Senate and White House, who have said there is no need for an investigation beyond the reviews currently taking place in the House and Senate and have not supported the idea of a special prosecutor.

There are a few reasons he’s taking a stand now.

Issa finds himself in a classic electoral problem: The long-serving Republican congressman faced his toughest reelection fight in years in 2016, beating back a challenge by Democrat Doug Applegate by fewer than 2,000 votes. The tight margin, and the fact that the district went narrowly for Clinton, seems to have shaken Issa.

Issa is also known for his aggressive investigations into President Obama and agency officials as chair of the House Oversight Committee, and could truly be trying to be consistent under a Republican president.

“Issa took his oversight role very seriously and very aggressively during the Obama years. It’s reasonable that he’d adhere to the same approach with a new president,” said Dan Schnur, a political communications professor at USC.

Issa’s district stretches from La Jolla to Dana Point and has ticked slowly left in recent years. Voters there narrowly picked Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump with 50.5% of the vote.

His is one of seven California Republican districts Democrats have said they plan to target. Applegate has already announced plans to challenge Issa again in 2018, painting a target on the congressman’s back.

While Issa’s special prosecutor statement was the most dramatic, it’s not the only change he’s made since the election. He’s also shown a softer, more centrist side. On Saturday, he urged his fellow Republicans at California’s GOP convention to do a better job listening to all Americans, even those who didn’t vote for them.

Earlier in the week, when many Republican members were avoiding the swarms of anti-Trump protesters outside their offices, Issa joined protesters and supporters demonstrating outside his office, answering questions on issues such as the future of the Affordable Care Act and listening to concerns for an hour and a half.

“He’s smart enough to understand that he will benefit in his district by establishing some daylight between himself and the Trump administration,” Schnur said.

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