“You can talk all you want about Russia,” said President Trump at his press conference Thursday, “which was all a fake news fabricated deal to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it.”
In other words: nothing to see here, no investigation necessary. A few minutes later, he made the point again: “Russia is fake news.”
But do Republicans in Congress agree? After insisting for months that there was really nothing to see in the web of connections between Trump and the government of Russia, they have come around and are finally demanding an investigation.
Behold their righteous determination to get to the bottom of this matter:
House Republican leaders are pressing the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate whether officials “mishandled” classified information, including leaked communications between members of the Russian government and the Trump administration that brought about Michael T. Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser.
In a letter to the inspector general, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) demanded “an immediate investigation” into whether the leaks broke protocol.
Oh. So they’re not going to investigate the scandal itself, they’re going to investigate how the scandal came to light, I suppose because, as the president says, that’s the real scandal.
In fairness, over in the Senate there is talk of something resembling an actual investigation. But it’s centered on the Intelligence Committee, the most opaque of Congress’s committees, where the light of public scrutiny is almost always barred. Republicans are obviously trying to make it seem as though they’re serious about this while actually doing everything they can to keep the scandal as quiet as possible.
We all know that if this were happening under a Democratic president, Republicans in Congress wouldn’t just be investigating, they’d shut down every other bit of congressional business to do nothing but investigate. After all, they conducted seven separate investigations of the Benghazi attacks, a tragic but fairly straightforward episode, in the hopes that it could be used to bring down Hillary Clinton. When Bill Clinton was president, they opened investigations into such weighty matters as whether Bill and Hillary murdered their friend Vince Foster, whether they had misused the White House Christmas card list — on that one, they heard 140 hours of sworn testimony — and, I kid you not, Socks the cat. Yes, Dan Burton, of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, once demanded to know whether taxpayer resources were being used to respond to children’s letters to the president’s cat.
That was an outrage worthy of serious scrutiny. Russia manipulating our political process? Whatevs.
So there’s no more doubt: This Congress is utterly incapable of conducting the investigation this scandal deserves. We’re talking about a hostile foreign government intervening in an American election on behalf of one candidate — even that the candidate’s campaign advisers allegedly had secret contacts with that hostile government. This is potentially as significant a scandal as Iran-Contra, or even Watergate.
Now maybe all this will turn out to be next to nothing. But we can’t know either way if congressional Republicans are in charge of the investigation. At worst, there will be no investigation at all or an investigation that’s little more than a whitewash. At best, it will devolve into the kind of partisan infighting we saw with the Select Committee on Benghazi.
That’s why we need an independent commission, not a select committee of members of Congress but a commission of outsiders with expertise, subpoena power and the budget necessary to answer the critical questions that have been raised. Here are just some of those questions:
- What was the extent of Russian hacking into the Democratic National Committee and individual Democratic officials?
- Why did hackers connected with Russia work against Democratic House candidates in 2016? How did they know which candidates to target? What Americans were they in contact with?
- Who on the Trump campaign had contact with Russian officials, who were the Russian officials, and what was the nature of those contacts? Was Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who had worked for a Vladimir Putin ally in Ukraine, in contact with anyone in Russia during the campaign? What about Michael Flynn or informal Trump adviser Roger Stone?
- Stone has said he had “back-channel communications” with Julian Assange of WikLeaks about hacked Democratic emails. Did the Trump campaign help coordinate the careful, multi-stage release of embarrassing information about Democrats that WikiLeaks undertook during the campaign?
- Why did the Trump campaign make a sudden change to the Republican Party platform to eliminate a provision calling for aiding Ukraine in its conflict with Russia? Who ordered that change, and why?
- What exactly did Flynn tell the Russian ambassador in the conversations he lied about, which led to his firing?
- Why did it take Trump three weeks to fire Flynn after learning that he had been lying?
- What was Putin hoping to get out of his intervention in the election on Trump’s behalf?
- Does Trump have any financial connections to Russia that we don’t know about, since he has refused to release his tax returns?
- Does the Russian government hold any compromising material that it could use to blackmail the president?
This is just a start; there will no doubt be many other questions that arise as the investigation proceeds. But no one can claim with a straight face that Republicans in Congress can be trusted to conduct an investigation that is thorough and objective.
The only choice is to impanel an independent commission and let it do its work. Otherwise we’ll never know what really happened.