The Russia investigation: Why the overseers need oversight
It seems every week or two there’s a media report about Congress holding a hearing or some member of Team Trump or other person being called in to testify: James Comey, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. The facts come out in drips: one reads of meetings with Russians during this past year’s presidential election; Facebook turning over information about shady campaign ads; Michael Flynn and possibly his son being subpoenaed to produce documents.
There are five congressional committees involved, to say nothing of independent counsel Robert Mueller. Who is doing what, when and why is anything but obvious.
Especially concerning is that Congress’ inquiries are increasingly viewed through partisan lenses. CNN reports:
In the House and Senate, several Republicans who sit on key committees are starting to grumble that the investigations have spanned the better part of the past nine months, contending that the Democratic push to extend the investigation well into next year could amount to a fishing expedition. The concerns are in line with ones raised by President Donald Trump, who has publicly and privately insisted he’s the subject of a ‘witch hunt’ on Capitol Hill and by special counsel Robert Mueller. Democrats, meanwhile, are raising their own concerns that the congressional Russia probes are rushing witnesses – including the testimony of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – as well as stalling appearances of other key Trump associates.
President Trump often has denounced the Russia issue as a hoax, and some of his supporters view it as a Democratic-media-deep-state “witch hunt” and fishing expedition. On the left, one still hears griping that Russian hackers helped Trump to steal the election and that Republican congressional majorities will hide any revelations of serious wrongdoing by the president or his campaign.
Desperately needed is something to bolster faith in the process. If the Russia investigation turns out to be a big nothingburger, then the country benefits if that conclusion is broadly accepted. And if there really is a there there, then it could lead to impeachment or other severe consequences, which, again, will require collective faith that the process is fair.
To raise credibility, Congress should adopt the benchmarks advocated by a right-left coalition of former government officials and policy wonks. In short, each of the committees (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; Senate Judiciary Committee; House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; and House Judiciary Committee) should commit to carry out their work in ways that demonstrate bipartisanship and the desire to keep the public informed.
So, speaking to the former matter, committee chairmen and ranking members should jointly hold press conferences, and issue public communications under both their names. When calling witnesses or demanding documents, both the majority and minority should consent.
To increase the public’s understanding, the committees should report publicly and regularly on basic aspects of the investigation: What’s the scope of the investigation? How many witnesses have been interviewed? How many hearings (open or closed door) have been held? How much has been spent?
That is not much to ask of Congress, but the benefits could prove immense. A big part of the glue that holds us together as a nation is acceptance of the legitimacy of government. With the presidency itself at the center of the investigation, the stakes are very high.
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