Elephants in the Room

‘Benghazi on Steroids’ Russia Investigation Needs an Independent Commission

Donald Trump may hate the thought of it, but it's something he should want, too.

FBI Director James Comey (L) speaks as National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers listens during the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian actions during the 2016 election campaign on March 20, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 

       / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
FBI Director James Comey (L) speaks as National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers listens during the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian actions during the 2016 election campaign on March 20, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

The congressional hearings have only just begun, but I think it is time to predict one likely outcome: Sooner or later, Congress and the Trump administration will agree to some sort of blue-ribbon independent commission, patterned on the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

My reasoning is pretty simple. The issue is too important to ignore, but too beset with partisan cross-currents to be adequately investigated by a body that is itself at the mercy of partisan forces. Congress can keep investigating it, but it will create a media circus that will make it hard to do any real governing.

Just listen to Rep. Adam Schiff’s carefully crafted opening statement. Schiff’s description of the issue is “Benghazi on steroids,” the ultimate club with which to beat the administration. He presented a prosecutor’s brief, one that exaggerated certain aspects, downplayed others, and may even have been factually wrong on key bits (see how Byron York challenges the charge that the Russian language in the party platform was changed at Trump’s behest, thus by implication, at Russia’s behest). But it had the effect of a powerful indictment nonetheless. Nothing that came after helped the Trump administration much, judging from the headlines over at the websites sympathetic to the White House (Drudge Report, Breitbart, among others).

Trump and other Republicans can keep fighting back in the daily news cycle, but every minute the administration is defending itself on this front is a minute not doing other things it really wants to do — say, advancing its efforts to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the other high profile hearing in the same news cycle.

The point stands, even if you accept, for the sake of argument, the Trump administration’s claim that charges of campaign collusion with the Russians are false and that the only real crimes by Americans here involve the leaking of national security information to undermine the president.

The reason is that the central element of the underlying charge — that Russia interfered in the election — has already been conceded by all sides and that element is itself serious enough to warrant a full investigation. In other words, key leaders in both parties admit that Russia took extraordinary steps to interfere in the 2016 election and we, as a country, still do not have adequate answers as to how and why, nor how to prevent this from happening again.

In short, the investigation or Russia’s role in the 2016 election is vitally important, and is going to continue regardless of whether the related, but analytically distinct, “Benghazi on steroids” charge that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, is ultimately proven or disproven.

So the question for the Trump administration is this: Do they want this investigation to preoccupy the legislative branch, on which the administration depends to make the rest of its policy agenda viable? And, in doing so, are they willing to endure the “Benghazi on steroids” frame that will likely drive the daily media circus such an investigation will generate? Or do they want the investigation to proceed in a fashion that would free up the scarcest resource of both the executive and the legislative branches — the attention of the leadership —to be deployed to other items that are higher priorities of the administration, such as SCOTUS confirmations, health care reform, infrastructure rebuilding, tax reform, and so on?

I cannot think of a single way in which a congressionally led investigation helps to advance the administration’s priorities in the short run. (If the investigation culminates in a bipartisan exoneration of the president, that would certainly help, but that would only happen, if ever, a long time from now.)

I also cannot think of a single way the administration could stop this investigation — nor should it, since the issues at stake are so important.

That leaves only three plausible options. Behind door number one is a continuation of the congressional investigation, thus maximizing the partisan nature of the proceedings.

Behind door number two is some sort of independent investigative counsel, such as the Special Prosecutor that investigated allegations that the Bush administration purposely leaked the identity of a covert agent. That example provides a powerful cautionary lesson, however. Patrick Fitzgerald “discovered” the answer to his primary question — who leaked the identity and why — very early in the course of the investigation. Moreover, the answer largely rebutted the critics who demanded the investigation and exonerated the Bush administration: the leaker was Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage, and it was not part of any effort to punish war critics. Yet Fitzgerald kept on investigating anyway and thus fueled the partisan dynamic without actually uncovering much evidence of serious wrongdoing. It is hard to see how this would be an attractive outcome for the Trump administration.

That leaves what is behind door number three: establishing a commission of respected voices, drawn from both sides of the aisle, to systematically investigate the issue and present its findings to the general public. When it is done well, as was the case with the 9/11 Commission, it produces an outcome that is better for all sides. Such an investigation could be designed to be far-reaching, so it would explore the questions Republicans want explored — such as whether President Obama’s Russia policies failed in ways that invited Russian meddling in the election. And it could explore larger foreign-policy questions such as recommending steps to prevent future Russian aggressive actions.

I suspect the Trump administration will reach this same conclusion, sooner or later. But it may well come after some damage to the administration’s public standing. The administration’s approach thus far has been more of a “bring it on” kind of defiance that has the counterproductive effect of increasing the reputational costs of the investigation and producing bad headlines. (FBI Director James Comey’s earliest headline of the day was a close-to-blanket rebuttal of recent presidential tweets).

The sooner this investigation is tasked out to a bipartisan team of respected citizens who do not have day jobs related to governing, the better for the Trump administration — and, I would argue, the better for a country desperately in need of policy solutions to the vexing problems we face.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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