Michael Flynn’s resignation late Monday may have resolved a political problem for President Trump, but it doesn’t address the nagging questions about whether Trump, through his campaign, and then transition team, had improper — and potentially illegal — contacts with Russia. And they need to be answered.
Some Senate Republicans have already called for an investigation into Flynn, something that would be welcome, but is insufficient given the scope of Trump team connections with Russia. The Republican congressional leadership needs to put responsibility to country ahead of party loyalty to the president, and appoint an independent commission or special prosecutor to get to the bottom of it.
The reason for an independent inquiry? The existing mechanisms for such an investigation are too tainted by coziness with Trump, or by questions about their own behavior, to do the job in a way the public can trust.
For instance, FBI Director James Comey — and, in fact the agency itself — is under review by the Justice Department’s inspector general over questions about pre-election disclosures concerning the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. While investigators deserve a presumption of professionalism, there’s been sufficient controversy to justify skepticism about the agency’s independence.
On Capitol Hill, the House Intelligence Committee is run by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), a Trump transition team member who early Tuesday said his committee — which is already reviewing Russian meddling in the presidential election — won’t investigate conversations between Flynn and Trump. Nunes cited “executive privilege,” a defense usually claimed by the president in response to demands for information.
Yet the conversations of most interest would have occurred during the campaign and transition, before Trump took the oath, and before executive privilege could come into play. But Nunes did say his committee will look into leaks from the White House — something Trump said was more significant than Flynn’s resignation. So with Nunes carrying Trump’s water (and thanking the departed Flynn for his service), don’t expect much independent oversight there (the House Oversight Committee has deferred to Nunes’ committee).
The Senate Intelligence Committee also is looking into Trump team ties to Russia, but that effort, too, draws reasonable skepticism. The head of the committee is Trump backer Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), who initially balked at the investigation, but apparently came around after intelligence reports about Russia actions. But he has said that the committee’s work will be done mostly in secret.
And the nation still doesn’t have a clear understanding of how much of the controversial dossier, which began as campaign opposition research by Republicans, is true. CNN recently reported that investigators have verified some elements of it, namely conversations among Russian officials. Clearly more investigation is required.
But who should be finding the truth here? Who can the public trust to actually get as close to the truth as is possible?
The intelligence community needs to continue its work, but given the nation’s deep cynicism toward governmental institutions — cynicism fueled and exploited by candidate Trump — there needs to be a full and independent investigation into whether Trump’s team violated federal laws in their contacts with Russia. And as much detail must be made public as possible without truly compromising national security (all too often such claims are defensive fig leaves, not efforts to keep legitimately sensitive material hidden).
The FBI is tainted. Congress is tainted. The best solution is likely either an independent commission with subpoena power, or an independent prosecutor, though given the restrictions on public disclosures by a prosecutor, a commission may be the better option.
Regardless, there needs to be an investigation, and a public accounting. The issues here are far too serious to leave to the manipulations of the usual partisan politics. Even the Republicans should recognize that. And such a move might even be a step toward renewing Americans’ faith in their government.