The strange, lonely, and defiant role of Chuck Grassley in the Trump-Russia investigation

Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley signed off on a subpoena today to haul in an uncooperative Paul Manafort for testimony in the Russia scandal, eliciting cheers from the anti-Trump crowd. This came just one day after Grassley received scorn from the anti-Trump crowd for having offered to let Manafort testify in private. It was a microcosm for the unusual, complex and widely misunderstood role that Grassley has been playing in the Trump-Russia investigation.

Grassley, at age eighty-three, is almost certain not to run for reelection when his current six year term is up in 2022. That means he effectively answers to no one. As a partisan conservative, Grassley surely would have loved for a fellow Republican like Donald Trump to have evolved into a rational person and succeeded in office. But he sees that isn’t going to happen. Grassley also has own moral code, and he appears to view Trump’s Russia scandal as a violation.

More crucially, Grassley considers himself and his committee to be phenomenally important. It’s that last part that seems to be driving his actions. It’s why he put a hold on Trump’s nominations until his information request was met. It’s why he hasn’t hesitated to issue subpoenas for any Trump-Russia figures who have ignored his requests to testify. And it’s why he’s gone along with it every time Democratic ranking member Dianne Feinstein has insisted that yet another criminal aspect of Trump’s behavior be investigated.

But Grassley is also politically savvy; it’s how he’s survived as long as he has. He knows that as long as he’s giving his support to the Democrats who want to investigate a Republican president, he’d better keep throwing bones to his own base as well. It’s why he’s pursuing partisan silliness by hauling in certain people to testify in ways that pander to pro-Trump conspiracy theories. It doesn’t change the course of the investigation, but it allows Grassley to avoid being eaten alive by his own base for pursuing the Trump investigation to begin with.

That’s put Grassley in a surreal role. Liberals and anti-Trump people have long skeptically looked for a reason to distrust him in the Trump investigation, and the symbolic concessions he keeps making to his own side have only fueled that skepticism. The left will never trust Grassley, and maybe they shouldn’t. But, perhaps if only because he believes his role on the Judiciary Committee is so solemnly important, his broader actions have revealed that he’s very much interested in getting to the bottom of Trump’s scandals.

That means that neither the left the nor right is going to be happy with Chuck Grassley from here on out. That’s why it may be best that he’s in his final term. But if you’re looking for a measuring stick on whether he can be trusted to do the right thing in investigating Donald Trump’s scandals, consider this: Dianne Feinstein, who has worked closely with Grassley forever and is more intent on taking Trump down than perhaps anyone else in Congress, seems to be getting everything she wants from Grassley even though he has the majority vote. If she sours on Grassley, it’ll become an entirely different story.

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Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report