The Comey Hearing Was a Bipartisan Failure of Oversight
The House Intelligence Committee's hearing with FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers did an excellent job of demonstrating why the House isn't even remotely ready to investigate Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, let alone any possible wrongdoing by Donald Trump and his campaign.
If there was any question about the seriousness of the scandal in general, Comey cleared it up early in his testimony by confirming an ongoing (since July!) FBI investigation of both Russian actions and Trump campaign actions. Of course, an investigation hardly means proof, but it certainly means that there must be significant evidence. The hearing also produced yet another round of denials about Trump's wild claims about having been wiretapped by former President Barack Obama, so there certainly was news.
But according to Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes and the other Republicans on the committee, the idea that a hostile foreign nation interfered with a U.S. election isn't particularly important. Or at least, based on their questions, not nearly as important as the leaks within the government. Nunes himself also elicited statements that Russia did not hack the actual voting and counting of votes in the election, and that the FBI would follow up on any evidence it learns about any possible Hillary Clinton collaboration with the Russians.
Other than that, Nunes acted as if it wasn't his job to get at the truth. Indeed, he ended the hearing by complaining that Comey put administration figures under a cloud by admitting the FBI investigation. But Nunes himself could have brought in those people and asked them questions under oath. He's apparently not going to do that, however.
The Democrats did better, but while at least as many of them did ask relevant questions, their interest in the story seemed almost fully limited to the portions which make Trump and his administration look bad. Or, to put it another way: some Democrats used the hearing to put important things on the record, while others mainly grandstanded. Either way, they were focused on Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and other Trump figures.
The Democrats' line of questioning was certainly important. However, it was largely for the cameras, not for the witnesses -- who either didn't know the answers, or wouldn't say because it was part of the ongoing investigation. It's not necessarily bad to use the hearing as an excuse to publicize their outline of what might have happened, and to draw attention to questions that couldn't be answered today. But it would be nice to actually establish a record based on witness testimony.
A few committee members, most notably Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Elise Stefanik, and Will Hurd, asked questions about what Russia actually did and what if anything can be done about it or to prevent it in the future, which is what the witnesses were qualified and able to discuss. But most Republicans did not, and almost every Democrat had other things on their mind.
In other words, the Republicans did an awful job. Some Democrats did well and others didn't -- ranking member Adam Schiff was fine -- but overall they too were mainly interested in the portions of the story they could use as partisan points.
What has all of this confirmed?
First, that this is a very important story -- both the Russia part of it and the Trump part of it. Second, that Congress has an important role beyond merely asking executive branch officials what they are doing; it should be mounting its own investigation, and should also be explaining to the public what happened and why it matters. And, third, that the House is ill-equipped to carry on a serious investigation, and that the intelligence committees (House or Senate) are not the correct forum. I continue to believe a Senate select committee is the best option (along with an independent prosecutor to lead the Justice Department investigation), although a bicameral select committee or an independent commission are both reasonable alternatives.
I do agree with Nunes about one thing: The investigation needs to be started quickly.
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