On Friday, staunch conservative and frequent inquisitor in the Obama administration Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) made the entirely reasonable point that only a special prosecutor could investigate alleged wrongdoing with regard to contacts with Russia by the campaign of the president of the United States. He said, “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office to take — not just to recuse. You can’t just give it to your deputy. That’s another political appointee.” And here Issa is correct, of course.
We are talking not just about the former national security adviser but about the alleged “constant” contact between the Trump team and Russia during the campaign. The president, let’s not forget, invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to hack and disclose a purported 30,000 emails destroyed by Hillary Clinton.
Just as the Justice Department cannot undertake this, neither can Congress without the appearance of a conflict. Not only do we have partisans atop the House and Senate committees undertaking the investigation, but we also now have admission that the White House enlisted both to knock down stories about the issues they are supposed to be investigating.
And if that were not bad enough, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was in communication with the FBI trying to get them to bat down news stories. On “Face the Nation,” former CIA director John Brennan slammed that behavior:
JOHN DICKERSON: The White House also said that they talked to FBI Director Comey about the investigation going on and that Comey told them or that the FBI told the White House there was nothing to these stories about Russians contacting Trump administration officials. Do you think — you know James Comey, director of the FBI. Do you think he would have weighed in on what was happening with an ongoing investigation?
BRENNAN: I have tremendous respect for Jim Comey, his competence and integrity. And it’s been my experience working with Jim that he wouldn’t do anything that was going to in any way compromise the integrity of an ongoing investigation. And that’s why anybody who claims that the facts are already known, in terms of what did or didn’t happen between Russian officials and U.S. persons during the election, I think is speaking very prematurely. But the White House needs to understand that the interaction with the FBI on criminal investigations is something that really they need to steer clear of. Certainly when I was in the White House for four years and then at the CIA, any type of engagement between the White House and the FBI about an ongoing criminal investigation was verboten. Again, not just because of the impropriety of doing it but the appearance that it would provide to folks on the outside that there might but some unwarranted interference in such an investigation.
DICKERSON: So this is not regular business. This wouldn’t have — when you were serving, the White House never called you and said, “Hey, would you help us out here? We got a story. We need some — you know, talk to some reporters”?
BRENNAN: No. I never did that on behalf of the White House request. And the White House never made a request of me in the regard. Particularly if it’s an investigation that by implication deals with some individuals who might have been associated with the individuals that currently reside in the White House.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a former prosecutor, didn’t agree a special prosecutor would be needed but he did not spare Priebus or the FBI. “I think the assistant director of the FBI has to be spoken to by Director Comey,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “He shouldn’t even be initiating that kind of conversation, in my view. And if I were the U.S. attorney, and that was an FBI agent or leader under my charge in the Newark or Camden offices, I would have sat them down and said, you’re not to have those kind of conversations with people who could be in the orbit of an investigation, because you never know where an investigation is going to go.” He added, “I can guarantee you this. I don’t think the chief of staff will ever have that kind of conversation with the FBI, with an FBI personnel again, nor should he.” The question remains why the public should continue to have confidence in an investigation carried out by the executive branch or by partisans in Congress.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who sits on the Intelligence Committee, was clearly perturbed. “For the public to have confidence in our findings, it is important that the Committee work in a completely bipartisan fashion and that we avoid any actions that might be perceived as compromising the integrity of our work,” she warned in a written statement. “It is also important that the Committee ultimately issue a public report on our findings.”
If you need any proof of the GOP Congress’s inability to conduct a serious investigation, look no further than fellow Intelligence Committee member Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). On “Meet the Press,” he first defended Priebus’s inappropriate contact with the FBI. (“The White House I think was trying to ensure that the media had more access to information.”) His conversation with Chuck Todd continued:
COTTON: Well, I think that’s way, way getting ahead of ourselves here, Chuck. There’s no allegations of any crime occurring. There’s not even an indication that there’s criminal investigations underway by the FBI, as opposed to counterintelligence investigations, which the FBI conducts all the time as our main counterintelligence bureau. If we get down that road, that’s a decision that Attorney General Sessions can make at the time. But I think —
TODD: Senators can call for it on their own. I mean, you called during your campaign against Mark Pryor, you called for a special prosecutor for the IRS. How does this Russia allegation, when does that rise to that level in your mind?
COTTON: Well, I think that’s far down the road from what our inquiry might reveal in the Intelligence Committee, or what the FBI’s inquiries might reveal. That’s something that can be decided down the road. But right now, there’s no credible evidence of these contacts beyond anonymous sources in the media. And I’ve got to tell you, anonymous sources can’t always be trusted.
Now, as someone who sits on the Intelligence Committee and receives briefings from the intelligence community he knows the intelligence community has a basis for investigation. Is he now accusing them of conducting a wild goose chase? Moreover, the notion that you have to have criminal conduct to hire a prosecutor — not merely an ongoing counterintelligence investigation as to whether the president has been compromised by an adversary of the United States — will strike most Americans as absurd.
However, if you want to get into potential criminal conduct, let’s remember: 1. Asking the FBI to conduct PR for the embattled president is a short step removed from obstruction and 2. Michael Flynn apparently lied to Vice President Pence, other staff and the FBI in denying that his call with the Russian ambassador referred to sanctions. (We know he was dishonest because the White House fired him for lying to Pence.) Cotton’s office did not respond to my query as to how he could have sat through recent briefings and concluded there is no credible evidence of wrongdoing.
In sum, under ordinary circumstances an investigation into the president and senior advisers would be tossed to an impartial investigator. Here — when we have evidence Flynn lied and Priebus communicated with the FBI — the necessity of such an inquiry cannot seriously be questioned.
Moreover, if the GOP town halls were any indication last week, Republicans should be happy to get the Russia investigation off their plate. Let an independent investigator question witnesses under oath, subpoena documents (including Trump’s financial records) and tell us precisely what occurred during and after the campaign. Shouldn’t the American people know if the president is a crook, a liar, a Russia pawn or none of the above?