Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Plum Line | Opinion

Today's intelligence hearing is a farce. It shows why we need an independent Russia probe.

By Paul Waldman

March 20, 2017 at 1:08 PM

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FBI Director James Comey responded to questions from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) about leaks of classified information that led to the resignation of then national security advisor Michael Flynn. (Reuters)

The intelligence committees are supposed to be the least partisan of all committees in Congress. They deal with profound matters of U.S. national security, most of their hearings are secret, and their members have access to information most other members of Congress aren't even allowed to see.

But today's hearing with FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers before the House Intelligence Committee demonstrated why this Congress is utterly incapable of conducting the kind of investigation we need into the extraordinary scandal of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, and particularly the possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

There's a strong argument to be made that the Justice Department and the FBI are also incapable of conducting an effective investigation into this matter, and therefore we need an independent counsel to investigate crimes that might have been committed. But more importantly, we need an independent commission like the one that was assembled after the Sept. 11 attacks, with an ample budget and subpoena power to get the whole story on what did and didn't happen in 2016, far beyond any possible crimes.

No one who watched today's hearing could doubt that the Republican members of the committee had one goal in mind: protect President Trump. At 7 this morning, the president tweeted this:

Just by coincidence, the question of who has been leaking information about Trump associates and the Russians was the primary focus of the Republicans' questioning during the hearing. Member after member asked the witnesses to explain how awful and damaging leaks are, and how sternly they should be punished. So outraged was Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) that when talking about leaks regarding former national security adviser Michael Flynn's repeated contacts with the Russian ambassador, Gowdy refused to even mention Flynn's name so as to protect his privacy. That's the same Michael Flynn who lied to Vice President Pence so Pence would publicly defend him, lied to the FBI when they questioned him about it, got payments from multiple Russian companies and acted as an agent of the Turkish government while he was a key adviser to the Trump campaign. But he's the real victim here, I guess.

One of the many adages that came out of the Watergate scandal was "the coverup is worse than the crime," which is actually false (and in Watergate, the coverup involved committing further crimes). But Republicans have come up with a new adage: Revealing the crime is worse than the crime. This is apparently how they have decided to deal with any investigation into the complex web of relationships between Trump's 2016 campaign and the Russian government. They downplay the fact that Russia intervened in our election on Trump's behalf, or that there may have been collusion between the president's campaign and the Russians. Instead, the more serious problem is that we learned about it.

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FBI Director James B. Comey said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing that he has no information that Trump Tower was wiretapped by former president Barack Obama. (Reuters)

You can acknowledge that on an individual basis we don't want government officials to leak classified or otherwise sensitive information, while at the same time realizing that in this case, the problem is way, way bigger than the leak itself. But the way the Republican members are consumed by the leak issue is an admission on their part that they have no intention of vigorously investigating the Russia scandal.

That starts with committee chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and goes down the line. Last month, Nunes was asked by the White House to push back against news reports detailing the contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, which he not only did, but defended as an effort at "transparency." While there's usually nothing wrong with members of Congress coordinating with the White House on talking points and communication strategy, in this case it demonstrates that Nunes — who also served on Trump's transition team — can't possibly be an objective investigator into the matter of Russian interference into the election.

In fact, it was clear from the opening moments of the hearing that the entire Republican strategy was, "Move along, nothing to see here." Nunes asked Comey and Rogers multiple questions about whether the Russians had hacked into the vote tallies during the campaign, a straw man meant to convince people that the hacking that did go on was meaningless. He even asked about whether the FBI would investigate contacts between the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Russians, which would have seemed like a weird non sequitur if you didn't know that this morning, Trump tweeted, "What about all of the contact with the Clinton campaign and the Russians?" 

A lot of the focus today is going to be on Comey's acknowledgment that the FBI is indeed investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. One can't help but notice that during the campaign he thought it absolutely vital to make public announcements that the bureau was looking into some of Clinton's emails — which led, as he surely knew it would, to blanket media coverage that reinforced the Trump campaign's message — while he simultaneously kept mum on the investigation into the Trump campaign.

It's possible that all this attention will keep Comey honest and spur him to do a vigorous and thorough job. Or it's possible that he's already revealed his biases on this matter and there's no reason to think he'll act differently than he did before. We also shouldn't forget that Attorney General Jeff Sessions only agreed to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign (of which he was an essential part) after it was revealed that he misled members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings when he falsely claimed that he had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign. Had his meetings with the Russian ambassador not come to light, we can presume that he would still be overseeing this investigation.

But there can't be any more doubt: We're never going to learn the whole story of what happened in 2016 unless we take the investigation out of Republican hands.


Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.

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