While some Republicans are warning that the appointment of a special counsel could impede Congress’ parallel investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, there is ample precedent that argues the opposite.
“It’s clearly an excuse,” said former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “It didn’t keep them from doing oversight when there was a Democratic president.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein assured lawmakers Friday that his appointment of a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between the Russian government and associates of President Trump should not impede Congress’s own probes into that same question, according to one account by a senior Democratic congressman.
During a closed briefing with House members, Rosenstein was pressed on whether congressional investigations might conflict with the one conducted by the recently named special counsel, former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
“Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein recognized and acknowledged that Congress has an independent right to continue its own investigations into issues that, although not necessarily criminal, relate to our core oversight functions,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
However, Rosenstein encouraged the lawmakers to make sure that their efforts are closely coordinated with those of the Justice Department, and that they should “establish a point of contact for Special Counsel Mueller,” Cummings said via email.
Some GOP senators have cautioned that congressional committees would have to slow down or move aside, to avoid interfering with Mueller’s operation.
“Certainly, I think Congress’s ability to investigate this process fully is going to be hampered,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) added that it may impossible to subpoena key witnesses.
But veterans of previous situations such as this dismiss those arguments.
Indeed, during the administration of Democratic president Bill Clinton, there were no fewer than seven investigations, led by independent counsels, looking into the behavior of his administration and its top officials.
The most important was the sprawling one that began with questions regarding Whitewater, a failed real estate venture that Bill and Hillary Clinton had invested in during the 1970s and 1980s. Under independent counsel Kenneth Starr, that one expanded to include controversies involving the White House Travel Office; allegations of improper use of FBI files, and ultimately, Clinton’s extramarital affair with a White House intern that led to his impeachment.
Throughout, Republicans controlling Congress kept up the pace of their own investigations.
Particularly active was Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who took over as chairman of the oversight committee in 1997.
Barbara Comstock, now a Republican congresswoman from Northern Virginia, was chief investigative counsel for Burton. In her recollection, the committee’s work frequently complemented the work being done by special prosecutors.
“We did investigations separate from what the Justice Department was doing, and often, we found documents before they did,” she said.
“The purpose of the congressional investigations is the public’s right to know, and I think the two can be done concurrently,” Comstock added.
Waxman noted that congressional oversight goes far broader than the question of whether a crime was committed, which is the purview of the special counsel.
Among those areas: whether national security was compromised by what intelligence officials say were Russian efforts to boost Trump’s chances in the election, and what might be done to prevent future meddling.
Another question, Waxman said, is whether Trump officials “have been hones with the public about their actions, and what has been going on at the highest levels of the administration.”