President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York  (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, made an extraordinary announcement late Friday:

In the course of its regular work, the Committee conducts oversight of the Intelligence Community’s collection and analysis related to Russia; however, the October 7, 2016, joint statement on election security from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), combined with the declassified Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” raise profound concerns.

They promised an inquest that would include:

  • A review of the intelligence that informed the Intelligence Community Assessment “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections;”
  • Counterintelligence concerns related to Russia and the 2016 U.S. election, including any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns;
  • Russian cyber activity and other “active measures” directed against the U.S., both as it regards the 2016 election and more broadly.

Exploration of the ties between the presidential campaigns — meaning President-elect Donald Trump — could reveal the most damning aspects of Russian interference with our election. (You recall Trump, at his press conference, declined to answer a question about any communications conducted during the campaign.) The committee promises to hold hearings, interview senior officials of the Obama and Trump administrations (would this include the president-elect?) and provide “both classified and unclassified reports on its findings.”

The danger here remains twofold. First, Republicans might drag their feet, hoping the public will lose interest. Second, the committee might be insufficiently aggressive. It should, for example, determine if the Russians were attempting to use financial leverage over Trump or any advisers, including his appointed national security adviser, who reportedly had FIVE calls with the Russian ambassador on the day the president was expelling Russian diplomats. (“The calls raised fresh questions among some U.S. officials about contacts between Trump’s advisers and Russian officials at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies contend that Moscow waged a multifaceted campaign of hacking and other actions to boost Republican Trump’s election chances against Democrat Hillary Clinton,” Reuters reports.) Flynn was a frequent commentator on the Russian propaganda outlet RT. The president-elect should be expected to produce for on-camera inspection his tax and bank records to dispel any concerns about whether Russia  has financial leverage over him.

Critics of the president-elect’s Russia policy who remain deeply suspicious of connections between Trump and the Russians seem to be of two minds. On one hand, the committee has a strong relationship with the intelligence community and has serious Republican members (e.g., Marco Rubio of Florida, Susan Collins of Maine, James Lankford of Oklahoma) who likely will push for a vigorous and fair investigation. On the other hand, expecting Republicans to root out possibly incriminating information on a president of their own party may be expecting too much. For this very reason, following 9/11 an independent commission conducted the inquiry. Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) demanded exactly that — or a select committee — in a statement earlier in the week. (“The American people need to know the credibility of these allegations of attempts to compromise the President-elect—his public statements about Russia and President Putin are even more worrisome in this context. These reports, though unverified, warrant serious investigation by a Select Committee in Congress or a Commission of public officials and private citizens with subpoena power to investigate them—led by people of integrity like General Colin Powell and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.”) We would hope that Democrats and principled Republicans would speak up and, if needed, issue a minority report if they concluded the committee acted in a partisan manner.

The president-elect should pledge to cooperate fully and demand his staff and advisers do so as well. Otherwise, he will convey to voters that he is unserious about Russian espionage and/or has something to hide. No one in the administration should be allowed to remain in office if he or she takes the Fifth. Either Trump intends to cooperate fully or he intends to stonewall.

The committee will need to prove its independence and issue a conclusive report that provides a thorough and credible accounting of what occurred. If it fails to do so promptly, the cloud hanging over the president-elect will linger and his foreign policy decisions will be open to question. Quite simply, the American people need to know if Trump has benefited from — or worse, cooperated with — a hostile foreign power to win the White House. Yes, it is that serious.