Watergate Redux: Congress Needs to Hold Hearings Now
The evidence mounts daily from the special counsel investigation into Russian interference and collusion during the 2016 election. So does the evidence of the efforts by President Trump to hide those ties and stymie the work of Robert Mueller. The confirmation of William Barr as attorney general strongly suggests that what the public will learn of the findings through the Justice Department may be limited. The news that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort shared campaign polling data with his Russian connections and lied about it validates a sense of looming crisis.
This is a feeling we remember from our respective work on independent counsel investigations into the conduct of President Clinton and President Nixon. While both of those investigations led to much political upheaval, in the end, democracy was strengthened because the American people learned the facts of wrongdoing and Congress considered those public views on appropriate accountability before proceeding. The lesson here is that when the president is accused of serious wrongdoing, the American people have a right to know the facts and have a say in the consequences.
The public hearings on Watergate offer an ideal guide for Congress and is the path we believe it must follow today. This fulfills the constitutional mandate that Congress ensures that the American people get the facts and that the president will be held accountable if the evidence warrants or is exonerated if not. Even if the Mueller report is released, despite testimony that Barr might not allow that, interest in understanding the facts should drive the House and Senate to hold public hearings now.
The special counsel statute of the 1990s that governed the investigation led by independent counsel Kenneth Starr into the Whitewater land deal and the affair between President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky mandated that the independent counsel report his findings to Congress and the public. However, such a report does not solve the need for understanding and evaluation of the facts. Only public hearings where the American people consider witness credibility can do that and lay the foundation for acceptance of the Mueller report and action by Congress.
In Whitewater, although there was a rather detailed report, there was no public hearing preceding it. The House called no witnesses except Starr. The Senate had no witnesses until the impeachment trial and then only a few depositions. This short circuited the evaluation of the allegations of misconduct by the public. We think this approach in the legislative branch is a total evasion of the responsibility of Congress to present the findings to the public and then hear what the American people think as a result.
Independent counsels must do what they do best, which is investigating and prosecuting crimes. That is precisely what Mueller has been doing. His indictments have already told us a great deal about his findings, and further indictments may offer more. But his special counsel mandate is not to tell the public all there is to know about the Russian assault on the 2016 election or the role of the president, if there is one, in that assault or any attempted cover up. Mueller also will not determine the appropriate consequences and needed reforms. That remains the job of Congress.
Watergate offers a better approach to serve the public interest. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox and his successor Leon Jaworski focused on uncovering facts regarding crimes related to the break in of Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex and the subsequent cover up. The Senate investigated separately and focused on legislative reforms. The televised hearings revealed the evidence so the public could understand the facts, judge the credibility of witnesses, and engage in a robust debate about the outcome. These televised hearings took place in 1973 and allowed the public to come to terms with the shocking facts.
The House did not commence its public hearings into whether there was a need for political accountability until 1974, after lawmakers received the Watergate grand jury “road map” and the public had seen the indictment against top aides detailing the crimes of his fundraising organization and the White House and linking those acts to Nixon. By the time lawmakers adopted articles of impeachment, the public knew the facts surrounding the misconduct of Nixon. When the Republican leaders of Congress went to the White House to inform Nixon he would be convicted by the Senate, the president and the public knew the facts supported his impeachment.
In every modern special counsel investigation that has examined whether a president was implicated in wrongdoing, except in the case of Clinton, Congress conducted its own independent investigation to ensure that the findings were made public and that it could carry out its constitutionally mandated role of providing political accountability. Congress must take its role as a coequal branch of government seriously and do so today. The American people have a right to know what happened in the 2016 election and whether or not our president has been implicated in any wrongdoing.
Image from Shutterstock