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Ryan issues warning to ex-FBI lawyer defying subpoena

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., leaves a news conference following a House Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 11. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

House Speaker Paul Ryan is warning former FBI lawyer Lisa Page that she must appear for a closed-door interview with two House committees investigating the Justice Department or the House could take action against her.

Page's attorney said late Tuesday that she would not appear for a private interview Wednesday with the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, despite a subpoena. In response, House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte said Page has known for months about an interview, and the committee will use "all tools at our disposal" to obtain it.

If a witness does not respond to a subpoena, the full House can vote to hold that person in contempt of Congress. Ryan said Wednesday the House will "do what we need to do to protect this branch of government" and that he stands behind Goodlatte.

"A subpoena to testify before Congress is not optional, it's mandatory," Ryan said.

The committees are interested in Page as part of their investigation into what they say is bias at the Justice Department. Page exchanged text messages critical of Donald Trump with FBI agent Peter Strzok before and after the 2016 presidential election. Page and Strzok, who will testify publicly before the panels Thursday, both worked on the FBI investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton's emails and, later, on special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

House Republicans have suggested the FBI was conspiring against Trump during and after his presidential campaign, and the two committees are investigating decisions made by the agency and the Justice Department during the election. Democrats have strongly objected to the GOP-led investigation, saying it is an attempt to undermine Mueller's probe and sway public opinion against investigators.

It's unclear if GOP lawmakers will actually hold a contempt vote if Page continues to defy the subpoena. Ryan and others have threatened contempt several times over the past year as other witnesses have defied subpoenas in the House intelligence committee's now-closed Russia investigation and as the Justice Department has withheld documents, but they have yet to hold a vote on it.

Amy Jeffress said Page had offered to voluntarily appear before the committees later this month, but needed more time to prepare and clarification about what the lawmakers would be asking. Page has also been seeking access to FBI documents that the committees already had, and Jeffress said they heard late Tuesday that the request for that access had been granted.

Jeffress said the two panels' "bullying tactics here are unnecessary. We expect them to agree to another date so that Lisa can appear before the committees in the near future."

In a letter Jeffress sent to the Judiciary Committee on June 28 that was obtained by The Associated Press, she raises another issue. She mentions a referral sent to the FBI by several GOP lawmakers in April that recommends a criminal investigation of several current and former DOJ employees, including Page.

Jeffress writes in the letter that she assumes the committees agree there is no legitimate basis for that investigation, because it would be "inappropriate for the chairmen to request a voluntary interview from a subject or target of a criminal investigation relating to the same matters of that investigation."

The Judiciary and Oversight panels have already spent much of the summer holding hearings and interviews critical of the FBI and Justice Department.

The committees have focused much of their ire on Strzok, who was interviewed privately by lawmakers on the two committees for 11 hours June 27. When he returns to Capitol Hill for Thursday's hearing he will be speaking publicly about the messages for the first time.

Strzok had a leading role in the Clinton probe and was removed from the Mueller investigation after the texts were discovered a year ago. Page had already left the Mueller team.

A report by the Justice Department's internal watchdog released last month detailed the inflammatory texts between the two, including an exchange in which Strzok wrote "we'll stop it" in reference to a potential Trump election win. The report did not find that the conclusions in the Clinton investigation were tainted by political bias.

The Judiciary Committee also held a contentious hearing June 28 with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In the hearing, Republicans angrily accused the officials of withholding documents from them and demanded details about surveillance tactics in the Russia investigation.

Democrats have called the investigation, the hearings and the interviews a farce. In a document released Wednesday, Democrats said Republicans had asked more than 200 questions in the Strzok interview about Mueller's investigation and the FBI's Russia investigation before Mueller was appointed last year. The investigation is looking at Russian ties to Trump's campaign and whether Trump obstructed justice.

Lawmakers on the panels met behind closed doors Wednesday morning just after the time Page had been scheduled to show up. At the meeting, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, told Republicans that they "appear to want to bully Ms. Page in order to throw some red meat to your base, and to further undermine the Department of Justice and the FBI — so that maybe, just maybe, the public won't believe the outcome of the special counsel's investigation when it comes."

The remarks were released by Democratic staff after the meeting.

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