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Opinion: McCarthy's committee vengeance could pose a grave risk

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.

CNN  — 

With the war in Ukraine growing more tense by the day, and the United States playing a pivotal role in preventing Russia from succeeding in its efforts to win an unprovoked war, one might be excused for thinking the new leadership in the US House of Representatives would restrain its impulses to politicize some of the most sensitive areas of foreign policy. But no such thing is happening.

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

Anyone concerned that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would find it difficult to steer a moderate course after having to compromise with the most extreme members of the Republican Party to win the seat, had their fears confirmed this week when McCarthy announced he was barring key Democrats from the crucial House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Last week, the speaker announced that he was rejecting the appointment of the former chair, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, as well as Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California to the committee. It is no coincidence that the two played major roles in the two impeachments of former President Donald Trump, without whose support McCarthy would likely not hold the speaker’s gavel.

McCarthy tried to paint the decision as one of high-minded, security-conscious patriotism. But it was precisely the opposite of that. The just-elected speaker couldn’t run away from his own recorded vows of vengeance.

A year ago, he pledged that if Republicans became the majority, they would strip Schiff, Swalwell and Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from their committees, as payback for what Democrats had done.

“Never in the history have you had the majority tell the minority who could be on committee,” McCarthy complained at the time.

True, Democrats had – with support from some Republicans – removed Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona from their committees. But that was because of Rep. Greene’s incendiary and violent statements, such as supporting the execution of prominent Democrats, agreeing with comments calling the 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting a “false flag,” among others. She later backtracked from those comments and said that in 2018 she was “upset about things” and felt she could not trust the government. As for Rep. Gosar, the House voted to censure and remove him from committees over a photoshopped anime video he posted on social media showing him appearing to kill Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Joe Biden.

Complicating matters for them both, Greene and Gosar, election deniers who have embraced all manner of outlandish conspiracy theories, had used their social media accounts to stoke the flames that resulted in the assault on the US Capitol in the coup attempt of January 6.

But McCarthy wants this pre-announced retribution to look like statesmanship.

It’s worse. By targeting the Intelligence Committee, he is making this partisan play much more dangerous.

The committee had a tradition of bipartisanship, key to fulfilling its functions, until the arrival of Trump and the tensions caused by news that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to try to help him get elected – an issue the committee necessarily had to confront.

It also had to delve into Ukraine’s desperate plea for more American weapons to defend against Russia’s assault. Trump threatened to withhold funding from Ukraine asking President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 to “do us a favor though” and announce an investigation of Joe Biden, a man he correctly surmised could defeat him in 2020.

These were legitimate topics for the committee. So much so, that Trump’s self-serving mishandling of relations with Ukraine resulted in his first impeachment.

The Intelligence Committee deals with some of the most sensitive information; some of the most delicate matters of national and international security. It is the wrong place for partisan games.

McCarthy knows this. He said as much in his letter explaining his decision to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. “I cannot put partisan loyalty ahead of national security,” he said, adding in bold font, “Integrity matters more.”

Integrity is a word McCarthy should use sparingly, especially in the context of committee assignments. McCarthy is giving plum seats to his new ally, Greene, who made a name for herself initially with her embrace of the deranged ideas of QAnon, which she later distanced herself from, and has spewed an endless stream of outrageous statements, including suggesting that Jews have used space lasers to start forest fires. She later distanced herself from these comments as well. But McCarthy is also giving committee assignments (plural!) to the mind-boggling liar – the new congressman, George Santos of New York.

Then, of course, there are the signs of his own brittle integrity. Who can forget his denunciation of Trump from the House floor on January 6, followed promptly by a contrite pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago. It calls to mind Groucho Marx and the famous quote, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.”

There’s the time he forcefully denied a New York Times report that, in a GOP leadership meeting after the January 6 attack, he said Trump should resign. The Times report, he said, “is totally false and wrong.” But, Lordy, there was a tape with him saying exactly that.

In defending his decision before reporters, McCarthy accused Schiff of lying to the American people “about laptops.”

Schiff had dismissed stories surrounding the contents of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, the President’s son, as disinformation. The former intelligence committee chief had also come under fire for inartful paraphrasing of the call between Zelensky and Trump. But in his letter, the Speaker justified his decision by accusing Schiff of misusing his position as committee chairman and leaving the country “less safe.”

Schiff, who announced Thursday that he would run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat in the upper chamber in 2024, is not buying McCarthy’s justifications. “For Kevin McCarthy,” he said, “the cardinal sin appears to be that I led the impeachment of his Master at Mar-a-Lago,” adding, “He will do the former president’s bidding… and this is something the former president wants.”

As for Swalwell, McCarthy is justifying himself by alluding to the case of a Chinese spy who had developed ties with California politicians, including Swalwell, a decade ago. After the FBI informed him, Swalwell says he cut ties with her. Two years ago, Schiff told colleagues that the matter was discussed with GOP leaders back in 2015, and they had no objection to Swalwell serving. That, of course, was before he became one of Trump’s lead accusers.

Because the Intelligence Committee is “select,” the rules allow the speaker to choose or remove members. For other committees, he needs a majority of a House vote. That’s why his efforts to remove Omar – who has made statements many considered antisemitic, some of which she later apologized for – from the Foreign Affairs Committee, were more difficult, though ultimately successful.

“[A]s we enter a new Congress,” McCarthy wrote to the Democrats’ leader, “I am committed to returning the Intelligence Committee to one of genuine honesty and credibility that regains the trust of the American people.” Sadly, at the worst possible time, during a moment of rising global tensions, he is doing precisely the opposite.