This is the way Congress could hold Trump to account over the Comey affair

Designed properly, an independent commission could have the advantage of removing subsequent investigations from the intense partisanship that has surrounded recent hearings

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The Independent Online

Not much has been very normal in US politics in the past 100 days or so. Each time that normal looks to be gaining ground, the other shoe drops. On Tuesday, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the leading law enforcement official in the United States, and also the person in charge of investigating Trump team’s connections to Russia. This has called into doubt the ability of the United States under a Trump Presidency to conduct an independent investigation of Russia’s cyber attacks on the United States, and, especially, of the Trump team’s connection to this.  

It is hardly unusual for a President to have a degree of reluctance when it comes to investigating his own behaviour, or the behaviour of his closest associates. Trump’s retreat to Twitter, and his lack of decorum takes a normal state of reluctance to an entirely new level. It also is not uncommon for Congressional hearings to become bogged down in partisan politics. The recent success in passing the American Health Care Act through the House may have emboldened Republicans and strengthened their determination to work with rather than against the White House.

But the sanctity of America’s democracy hinges on the ability to ensure against the abuse of executive power and doing so will require holding the line on partisan politics. One option is for the Department of Justice to appoint an independent prosecutor, but since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations related to Russia’s cyberattacks on the US elections, and Trump’s role in this, this responsibility would fall to the Deputy Attorney General. Republicans have so far rejected Democrats’ demands for a Special Prosecutor. Given these politics, and the President’s dismissal of existing allegations, renewed momentum seems unlikely to come from the Executive branch.

This leaves Congress. Playing the short game will mean more of the same. Separate investigations before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees will proceed and partisan politics will continue to dampen the credibility, especially of the House investigation. In either case, FBI investigations will continue under the leadership of the new FBI Director though there is now a genuine concern that a new Director might undermine investigations by draining them of the necessary resources.

The next few weeks will test whether Congress can avoid short-termism and opt instead to play the long game. A committee that is designed to sideline rather than cement partisan politics will be critical to the success and therefore the legitimacy of investigations. This is a tall order, but it is certainly the best way to safeguard the norms that provide the glue for America’s democracy. Congress could choose to set up an independent commission (like the 9/11 commission), or a select committee. There have been calls for both. Senator McCain has called for a select committee. But unless more Republicans join this wave, either option is unlikely. Designed properly, an independent commission could have the advantage of removing subsequent investigations from the intense partisanship that has surrounded recent hearings.

Partisanship has become worse in recent years, but it has also limited earlier investigations on highly sensitive topics. When the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by a Democrat from California, Dianne Feinstein, issued its report on investigations into the CIA torture program claiming that the Agency misled the public, the Republicans responded by issuing a minority report with near opposite findings and which stressed that the Agency’s torture program had saved lives. Accounting for torture, at least in the US, ended there

Trump says Comey was fired for 'not doing a good job'

Some say the current fury over Trump’s decision to fire the FBI Director is simply another instance of partisan politics fuelled by bad optics and Trump’s temperamental nature (making any of a number of his actions susceptible to ethical challenge). In fact, Comey has made a lot of enemies on both sides of the aisle. His decision in October to announce a new investigation of Hilary’s emails only days before the presidential elections cost him considerable support among Democrats. 

But the timing of Trump’s decision to fire Comey has come only several months later and, crucially, just a few weeks after Comey testified before Congress confirming that the FBI has been conducting investigations into the Trump team’s links to Russia since last summer. It also comes as the FBI issued a series of subpoenas indicating the intent to press forward and speed up investigations.

That the White House, apparently, was surprised by this suggests a shocking degree of unchecked hubris. In his first 100 days, Trump relied on a range of tactics to deflect attention away from Congressional and FBI investigations of Russia. Some of these, especially his counter accusations that Obama wiretapped Trump Towers, worked less well than others. US airstrikes on Syria, and North Korea failed missile tests have dominated headlines, refocusing attention on the US role in the world. But if Trump’s goal was to relegate the Russia investigations to the periphery of Washington politics, he has failed miserably. One can only wonder how he has miscalculated so badly.

Many have taken solace in the belief that democracy in the United States is strong enough to moderate even a Trump presidency. Already, the Economist Intelligence Unit has downgraded America to a “flawed democracy”. The ability of the United States to lead is also set to suffer yet another blow since the example set at home limits what is possible abroad. The legitimacy of future investigations into Russia’s cyber-attacks and the role of Trump and his team in this is essential. In the end, the outcome matters less – whether allegations of the current administration’s misconduct prove to be primarily smoke and mirrors (if the cover up is really worse than the crime) is important, but it is of secondary importance. 

Leslie Vinjamuri is an Associate Fellow of the US & Americas Programme at Chatham House and also Director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS, University of London.

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