There’s a lot of smoke surrounding the Trump-Russia affair: the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was not just seeking to disrupt the American election but was actively working to elect Donald Trump and defeat Hillary Clinton; the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Russia and people in Trump’s orbit; the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn over communications with Russian officials; attorney general Jeff Session lying under oath about his contacts with Russian officials; the connections between several Trump campaign confederates, including one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Vladimir Putin’s regime; that unsettling intelligence dossier.
As ignominious as Trump is, I’ve always doubted that this smoke would lead to fire, at least the kind of fire that ends in the president’s impeachment. Still, it’s evident that a foreign power compromised our electoral process, and that demands a sober, thorough investigation.
The House and Senate intelligence committee are supposed to be doing just that. Except things haven’t really happened that way so far.
Soon after FBI director James Comey confirmed an investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement in Russia’s election hacking, the House committee went FUBAR, with Republican chairman Devin Nunes running interference for Trump’s make-believe wire-tapping claims and then having to recuse himself after complaints that he may have disclosed classified information. That committee churns on without him; in a closed session on May 2, it will hear testimony from Comey; former acting attorney general Sally Yates; Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency; former CIA director John Brennan; and former director of national intelligence James Clapper.
The Senate committee, meanwhile, chaired by none other than U.S. Senator Richard Burr, has been portrayed as our last, best hope to get to the truth of things. And yet, it’s been mostly silent. Worse, two stories published in the last twenty-four hours—this one, by The Daily Beast, and this one, by Yahoo! investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff—paint the picture of a Senate committee that is not altogether serious.
From The Daily Beast:
And from Isikoff:
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russia’s election interference is supposedly the best hope for getting the public credible answers about whether there was any coordination between the Kremlin and Trump Tower.
But there are serious reasons to doubt that it can accomplish this task, as currently configured.
More than three months after the committee announced that it had agreed on the scope of the investigation, the panel has not begun substantially investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, three individuals with ties to the committee told The Daily Beast.
The investigation does not have a single staffer dedicated to it full-time, and those staff members working on it part-time do not have significant investigative experience. The probe currently appears to be moving at a pace slower than prior Senate Intelligence Committee investigations, such as the CIA torture inquiry, which took years to accomplish.
No interviews have been conducted with key individuals suspected of being in the Trump-Russia orbit: not Michael Flynn, not Roger Stone, not Carter Page, not Paul Manafort, and not Jared Kushner, according to two sources familiar with the committee’s procedures.
That last part bears repeating: “[The committee] also hasn’t requested potentially crucial evidence—such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign—in part because the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel’s Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.”
More than three months after the Senate Intelligence Committee launched its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — including allegations of collusion by associates of President Trump — the panel has made little progress and is increasingly stymied by partisan divisions that are jeopardizing the future of the inquiry, according to multiple sources involved in the probe.
The committee has yet to issue a single subpoena for documents or interview any key witnesses who are central to the probe, the sources said. It also hasn’t requested potentially crucial evidence — such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign — in part because the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel’s Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.
If Isikoff’s and The Daily Beast’s reporting is correct—Burr’s office declined to comment on “internal committee processes”—then North Carolina’s senior senator is stalling requests for records from the Trump campaign while his understaffed committee dithers on doing any actual investigation. Burr doesn’t seem particularly interested in learning the answers to the questions he’s supposed to be asking. In fact, he doesn’t even seem bothered enough to ask those questions in the first place.
The question is why.
To my mind, Occam’s razor applies: politics. Burr wants to shield the Trump administration from embarrassment for as long as he can.
Even if Russia hearings produce no smoking gun, they’re likely to be a drag on the president’s and congressional Republicans’ agendas, blocking the political sun and maybe kicking up a scandal or two that will endanger the GOP’s House majority in 2018. Burr wants to avoid that. If it can’t avoid it, he wants to delay it, so as to give his party an opportunity to advance its policies before a months-long headache set in.
Burr, like Nunes before him, has proven himself unworthy of the occasion, unable to rise above narrow partisan interests. And he’s a case-in-point demonstration of why an overwhelming majority of Americans believe this investigation shouldn’t be left in the hands of politicians. They simply can’t be trusted to do the job right.