Congress

Trump-Russia Scandal Demands a Senate Select Committee, Too

The special counsel is focused on crimes, but only Congress can lay out the full story to the American people.

Part of a package.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The obvious thing about the new special counsel named to investigate the Trump-Russia scandal is that President Trump entirely brought this upon himself -- first, by firing FBI Director James Comey, then by claiming it was all the Justice Department's idea, and then by going on TV and linking it to the scandal.

Of course, if press reports are correct and Trump had previously interfered with the investigation, then it's even more a case of a self-inflicted wound. At the very least, Comey's memo wouldn't have become public as soon as it did.

That is, if there was a cover-up going on here, it's Trump himself who undermined it. By today, there was really just no other choice for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was confirmed less than a month ago by Republicans and most Democrats as a paragon of law enforcement professionalism. After all, the way Trump initially used him as an excuse for the Comey action made it look as if Rosenstein was in on a cover-up, and appointing an independent investigation was the only way to get himself out of harm's way.

That said: As was the case back in 1973, the price for appointing a special counsel is time. The new office will have to be set up and brought up to speed, and so even if the FBI agents who have been working the case are detailed to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's new team, some delay will be a necessary consequence. Indeed, the history of special counsels is that they take their time. The Iran-Contra independent counsel still had important officials under indictment from the 1986 scandal when George H.W. Bush issued pardons in 1992; the most recent special counsel, who investigated the Plame affair, took about four years to get a conviction of Scooter Libby. 

And the biggest limitation of special counsels is that they are set up to, well, prosecute people for specific crimes. 1 That's important in this case for two reasons. First, because some of the accusations against Trump are not necessarily criminal violations, even though they would be (if true) violations abuses of power or otherwise impeachable offenses. And second, because this scandal has important public policy components -- about Russian interference in U.S. elections -- which need a thorough examination even if there is no wrongdoing by any Americans at all.

In other words: Congress still needs to be involved. And a Senate select committee is still the best option. Right now, multiple House and Senate committees are calling witnesses and holding hearings on different aspects of the case. That's okay, but it's unlikely to get to the bottom of things. Only a fully-staffed select committee dedicated to the questions raised by this scandal can do that. Here's what it could look like, as I wrote in March:

It should be small, like the seven-member Watergate Senate Select Committee, and given sufficient budget, staff, and scope to fully explore both the general topic of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the actions of the Trump campaign and associates of Trump. A 4-3 split would be acceptable, as long as the Republicans have a reputation for independence; an example might be Ben Sasse of Nebraska as Chair, with Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, Maine's Susan Collins, and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham as members.

Such a committee could call witnesses in a rational order in order to lay out the full story, and could organize the testimony so that the story is as coherent as possible. 

Why Senate and not House? Because there are several sufficiently independent Republican Senators that a committee could be credible, and because frankly the odds of the House acting are very small anyway. Not a joint committee, as was used during Iran-Contra, because as Watergate demonstrated smaller committees are better -- we don't need two days of opening statements by dozens of politicians looking to break through and make their name this way. And not a commission, for the reasons Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes explain here, not the least of which is that a commission requires legislation which the president could veto while a select committee only requires one chamber to pass a resolution. 

I should add: We still don't know what if anything really happened that rises to deserve criminal charges, resignations, or other such consequences. On the other hand, it's also possible that there's an ongoing cover-up of things only the wildest theories so far have speculated about. All we really can say is that the Trump Administration can't be trusted to investigate itself. Not after the news of this last week.

So the next big question is whether independent Republicans will continue to put pressure on Congress, and especially the Senate, to act. Only with both the special counsel and a congressional investigation in place will Congress demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law, whatever the investigators may find.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. It's also the reason some believe special counsels are always a bad idea -- the incentives are to find some crime to bring charges on, whether it's important or not and whether it's related to the original scandal or not. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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