Darrell Issa’s nomination to serve as a Trump administration trade official hit a roadblock Thursday amid concern over something in the former California congressman’s FBI background file.
Early in a confirmation hearing by the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the GOP chairman announced that a vote on Issa’s nomination to lead Trump’s U.S. Trade and Development Agency would be delayed until the White House agreed to make available Issa’s FBI background file to the full committee. It was unclear what in the file was raising concerns among members.
“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,” said ranking Democrat Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has held up Issa’s nomination for a year.
Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said the committee would not vote until the White House made the FBI file available. “We’re going to get this file open,” Risch sad.
Issa, a former Republican congressman from San Diego County who opted against running for reelection in 2018 when it became clear his district was turning Democratic, said after the hearing that he was surprised by Menendez’s objections and that the issue was related to his time as an Army private nearly 50 years ago.
“I was caught unaware by the decision that somehow every member needs to look at something Bob Menendez saw months ago,” Issa said. He said he was willing to go forward with the public hearing, but Risch and Menendez decided to postpone it after several senators questioned why they were moving forward without seeing the file for themselves.
“There is nothing that [Menendez] alleged that isn’t in my Wikipedia,” Issa said. “I have owned up to being a 17-year-old kid and not a very good private.”
The Times and other newspapers have written about Issa’s military service, including that he received a bad conduct rating and a demotion and that there were allegations he had stolen a fellow soldier’s car. Issa himself wrote about the incident in his 2016 biography.
After the hearing, Menendez would not comment on his specific concerns about Issa but refuted Issa’s characterization that the issues had been previously disclosed.
“If they were all public, then we wouldn’t be having the difficulty that we have,” Menendez said
It’s unclear whether the delay affects Issa’s flirtation with launching a bid to reenter Congress by challenging indicted Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter for Hunter’s San Diego County seat.
Issa, who has already launched an exploratory committee, told multiple media outlets in August — before the confirmation hearing was scheduled — that he would probably challenge the embattled Hunter if not confirmed to the trade job by Nov. 3. That self-imposed deadline is just a month before California’s early December deadline to file to run for office.
“Give me a little time to make something official on that,” Issa said.
Hunter (R-Alpine) faces trial in January on federal charges that he and his wife, Margaret, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on a lavish lifestyle including flights, vacations and private school tuition.
House Republicans stripped Hunter of his committee assignments following the charges, leaving him with little power, and little to do, on Capitol Hill, but have not publicly called on him to resign.
Hunter vowed to fight the criminal charges, even after his wife pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. That raised the prospect that she might testify against Hunter, who prosecutors alleged in court filings had used some of the misappropriated campaign funds on extramarital affairs.
Asked recently about Issa potentially entering the race, Hunter shrugged and said, “Politics.”
Issa, who represented a neighboring district, said in August that he was considering running because Hunter’s legal troubles had “injured” the congressman could potentially put the largely rural district at risk.
Though Issa’s 18-year career in Washington, coupled with his massive personal fortune, could position him as a formidable threat to Hunter, five other Republicans also have announced plans to run for the seat, including former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, whose campaign raised more than $900,000 in the weeks after he announced his bid.
San Diego political consultant Jason Roe suggested before the hearing that Issa might be using the approaching filing deadline to pressure the Senate to move on his nomination to lead the trade agency.
“I doubt that Darrell is as excited about this race as other people might be for him to get into this race,” Roe said. “Darrell’s a negotiator. I’m sure he’s trying to use the leverage he has as a potential candidate.”