Again and again today at the hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers refused to answer direct questions as to whether they had been asked by the president to interfere with the investigation into possible collusion with Russia. In response to Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Angus King (I-Maine), they said they did not feel “pressured” and/or “directed” but declined to say whether they were asked. FBI acting director McCabe also refused to say if he had conversations with former FBI director James B. Comey about his conversations with the president. And then Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein refused to explain how and why Attorney General Jeff Sessions un-recused himself and whether he understood his memo would be used to fire Comey.

None of these witnesses invoked executive privilege or national security. They just didn’t want to answer. King finally blew up, scolding Rogers that what he “feels” isn’t relevant. He demanded to know why Rogers and Coats were not answering. He demanded a “legal justification” for not answering, and the witnesses did not supply any. Coats strongly hinted he would share information, just not in public, and that he would cooperate with the special prosecutor.

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Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pressed officials to explain why they wouldn’t discuss conversations about the Russian hacking investigation. (Reuters)

This is nothing short of outrageous. Congress has an independent obligation to conduct oversight. Witnesses cannot simply decide they don’t want to share. If they could, there would be no oversight. While they were not under subpoena, their behavior was contemptuous and frankly unprecedented. The committee has the option to subpoena witnesses, demand answers and then hold them in contempt if they decline to answer. (Is that what the witnesses are hoping for, so they will be seen as having no choice?) It is hard to see any reason why Congress should not do so. A source not authorized to speak on the record but familiar with his thinking told me, “Senator Heinrich will seek to get answers one way or another.” It should be noted that no closed-door sessions are scheduled.

Should Republicans not take these steps, the conclusion should be obvious: They are acting to protect the president from public embarrassment. In doing so, they are demonstrating a lack of respect both for the public and Congress, an equal branch of government.

As time goes on, even men as respected as Coats, Rosenstein and Rogers — who hardly can be described as cohorts of Trump — seem to have become afflicted with a peculiar desire not to tell the public what is going on. They clearly don’t want to get fired as Comey was. Are they afraid of that eventuality? If so, they are, contrary to their protestations, being cowed, intimidated in the performance of their duties.

All of these witnesses, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other White House officials act as if they work for the president, not the American people. This is unacceptable in a functional democracy and would, if perpetuated, do serious damage to our democratic system. They need to tell the truth, the whole truth. Transparency and honesty cannot be optional for members of the executive branch. We will see if Republicans in Congress exhibit the same level of outrage as do Democrats. If not, they will be revealing their own willingness to defend the president and refusal to wholeheartedly perform their duties as required by their oaths.