For the past few weeks, keeping up with the latest developments in the head-spinning Trump-Russia scandal has been a full-time job.
Many people know the top lines: Trump has lots of potentially shady connections with Russia; the Russians interfered with the 2016 election with the explicit intention of helping Trump; the FBI has been investigating this; and Trump fired FBI director Jim Comey as the investigation was heating up—first lying about the reason (expecting us to believe it was because Comey was too mean to Hillary Clinton) and then admitting it was related to the Russia probe.
In perhaps the most significant development, on May 17th the Department of Justice (DOJ) tapped respected former FBI director Robert Mueller III as a special prosecutor to investigate the matter. This is on top of multiple congressional investigations that are already underway.
Tomorrow, we’ll have another watershed moment when Jim Comey testifies about his contacts with Trump publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
So, we’re good, right? The DOJ and Congress are looking into it. There are adults in the room. We can go back to business as usual until they tell us what happened?
No—that’s not just wrong, but dangerous for the country. We need Congress to create an independent commission, like the 9/11 Commission, to get to the bottom of this whole mess. Neither the special prosecutor nor the congressional investigations are likely to lead to the public reckoning we need.
In fact today, grassroots organizations delivered more than 4 million petitions to Congress at an event calling for an independent commission and for all members of the House of Representatives to sign a discharge petition that would bypass the Republican leadership and bring a full vote on the commission (which currently has 193 of the 218 signatures needed to succeed).
Here’s why we need it:
The sovereignty of the people at the core of our democracy is at stake. An authoritarian regime with no respect for human rights worked to manpiulate our elections, raising the real possibility that we have a different president than the one the people would have chosen on our own. This is no “two-bit burglary” like what kicked off Watergate—this is a fundamental threat to self-government.
We need to know exactly how Russia influenced our election and how to prevent it from happening again. This is not the point of Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which is only to explore if any U.S. persons broke any laws. Mueller’s investigation will look only backwards; we need to secure our democracy going forward.
The special prosecutor investigation is aimed at uncovering only prosecutable criminal activity, not a broader pattern of unpatriotic wrongdoing. Robert Mueller’s job is to look for crimes he can prosecute, which is a very small subset of the possible activity for which Trump or his associates should be held accountable.
For instance, Trump might have acted to impede the FBI investigation, but in a way that Mueller judges fell short of the standard of clear intent necessary to convict someone of obstruction of justice. Or, Mueller could determine that Trump did in fact commit a crime, but feel bound by prior DOJ guidance that says a sitting president cannot be prosecuted. Others could have committed crimes that can’t be prosecuted because the strongest evidence isn’t admissible in court or the statute of limitations has expired. Or, current members of the administration may have committed dastardly deeds that don’t happen to be criminal. None of these would result in an indictment or would necessarily see the light of day.
The special prosecutor’s investigation will occur largely in secret, with no guarantee of a public report. Criminal investigations are generally private affairs. Mueller is not required to produce a public report and it will likely be up to Trump-appointed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as to whether the core findings become public. This is the single biggest reason that this process does not serve the key goal of helping the public understand what their president and his associates have done and why.
Trump can order Mueller fired, or otherwise hinder his investigation. As the person who wrote them noted in the Washington Post, the DOJ’s special counsel rules do not provide complete independence and leave plenty of opportunities for compromise—from Trump, Deputy AG Rosenstein, or Congress. When Comey himself was Deputy AG and oversaw a special counsel investigation, he created additional safeguards providing more independence.
The congressional investigations are under-resourced and headed by Trump enablers who don’t want to find the truth. There are 4 congressional investigations going on, but they have only part-time staff and generally far fewer resources combined than serious past inquiries. The 9 staff assigned to the Senate Intelligence investigation compares to 46 on the House’s Benghazi investigation and 181 on a House Select Committee to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal.
Plus, the committee chairs running the investigations don’t exactly inspire confidence. The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, was a national security advisor for Trump’s campaign, and in February helped the White House push back on negative news stories about Russian connections. House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes recused himself from the investigation after he got caught up in a bungled White House attempt to justify Trump’s bogus claims that Obama wiretapped him during the campaign, and became the subject of an Ethics Committee investigation. But in late May he undermined his own recusal by unilaterally issuing subpoenas related to the investigation.
The bottom line is that none of the current investigations is likely to achieve what we need most at this perilous moment in American history—a full public reckoning of how a foreign power undermined the sovereignty of U.S. voters and how a sitting president or his associates may have been complicit.
We need an independent commission to get to the bottom of all this. Congress must act now. We can’t afford to return to “business as usual” in Washington, especially with a possibly illegitimate president who has shown himself totally unfit to govern.