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GOP tightens restrictions on Dana Rohrabacher’s subcommittee over Russia connections

Dana Rohrabacher
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) speaks to Russian lawmakers at a meeting in the Russian parliament’s lower house in Moscow in 2013.
(Misha Japaridze / Associated Press)

The congressional subcommittee led by California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is being heavily monitored by GOP leaders because of allegations that the Orange County congressman has been overly influenced by his connections to Russia.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce will be “more involved in guiding the direction” of the subcommittee that is in part responsible for examining U.S. policy in Russia, said a senior congressional aide who asked not to be identified in order to discuss internal committee matters.

The heightened focus, which affects where subcommittee members can travel and on what topics Rohrabacher can hold hearings, was first reported by the Daily Beast.

Rohrabacher has long said that the United States needs a better relationship with Russia, puzzling colleagues who have speculated privately about why he’s willing to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Connections between Rohrabacher and Russian officials have been newly highlighted as Congress investigates Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Royce’s increased attention on Rohrabacher’s subcommittee began in late July, when Royce fired Rohrabacher’s committee staffer and longtime friend Paul Behrends after a Politico article described Behrends as a “Hill staffer at the center of the Russia intrigue.”

According to multiple reports, Behrends helped organize a meeting last year during a committee trip to Russia in which high-level Russian officials gave Rohrabacher information to try to derail some U.S. sanctions against the country. Rohrabacher briefly considered holding a hearing to air the information. Some of the people who helped organize the meeting also met with President Trump’s son and campaign officials during the 2016 campaign.

Rohrabacher on Wednesday downplayed the increased oversight as a disagreement.

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“It’s a disagreement on how to approach this whole issue of Russia — that’s it. I want to have both sides presented on every hearing and Ed does not believe in that. Ed believes in pushing the totally anti-Russian line and I believe that we should look at both sides,” he said.

A Royce spokesperson declined to comment. Royce, of Fullerton, and Rohrabacher, of Costa Mesa, both represent Orange County congressional districts that are being targeted by Democrats in the 2018 midterm election.

Rohrabacher also blamed the new restrictions on the news media, which he said has mischaracterized his meetings with Russian officials.

“The media is not doing their job and they’re lying to the public about this being an issue about Russia when, in fact, my meetings with Russians have everything to do with my responsibilities being chairman of that committee,” Rohrabacher said. “It’s not sinister. It’s my job.”

While the Foreign Affairs Committee regularly reviews requests for all subcommittee hearings and official travel, the senior congressional aide said, there is special interest in examining Rohrabacher’s requests.

“Some of his suggestions for hearings were turned down,” Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs said in an email to the Los Angeles Times.

Rohrabacher asked Royce in September if he could investigate the Obama administration’s 2010 decision to approve the sale of uranium mines to a Russian-backed company, and its tenuous connections to former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The senior congressional aide said Royce urged Rohrabacher to talk to the Justice Department instead. Two House committees are now investigating.

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Royce’s frustration with Rohrabacher apparently spiked after Rohrabacher traveled to London in August to meet with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is living in asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy.

Rohrabacher said the Australian fugitive “emphatically stated that the Russians were not involved” in the theft of Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 presidential campaign even though numerous federal agencies have blamed Russia for the theft. Rohrabacher is trying to arrange a meeting with Trump to discuss a pardon for Assange in exchange for information about who stole the emails, but says he has been waylaid by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Rohrabacher lingered for hours Tuesday in a Capitol hallway outside where the president attended a GOP Senate lunch. Trump left through a different door.

The trip to London to meet with Assange was not sanctioned by the committee, the aide said, and Royce was not aware of the trip or that Rohrabacher was meeting with Assange. Grubbs said Rohrabacher, who paid for the trip himself, never asked the committee to pay for it.

The senior House congressional aide said there has not been talk about removing Rohrabacher as chair of the subcommittee.

Rohrabacher said the committee will focus on other topics in its jurisdiction, such as what the election of a far right party in Austria means for the United States.

The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, said the attention from Royce is having an effect on the subcommittee’s ability to operate “to a degree.”

The committee used to meet once a month, but its schedule shows it hasn’t met since the end of July, when members discussed how Trump’s budget would affect foreign relations. There is a mid-November hearing scheduled on the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, Meeks said.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

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Twitter: @sarahdwire

Read more about the 55 members of California’s delegation at latimes.com/politics.

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