Is Devin Nunes gaslighting the Dems? With the House Intelligence Committee—Mr. Nunes is Chairman—scheduled to hold its first public hearing Monday on Russian hacking in the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times ran a story last week suggesting that the Democrats might bolt if it looked like the investigation was turning into a partisan whitewash. Instead of reassuring his colleagues, and the country, Nunes, who advised the Trump transition, seems determined to prove that he is in the tank for the White House.
When asked why President Trump’s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (forced out after he lied to Vice President Pence about his pre-inaugural coziness with the Russians) wasn’t on the witness list, Nunes, according to the Times, called the general “a tangent,” adding that Flynn “should be thanked” for talking to the Russian Ambassador. Even before the investigation got underway, Nunes was brushing off reports of phone calls between Trump associates and Russian officials: “What I’ve been told by many folks is that there’s nothing there.” And last month, at the request of the White House, both Nunes and Richard Burr, who is heading up the Senate investigation, called reporters to deny stories that the Trump campaign had repeated contact with Russian intelligence operatives.
I hope the Democrats are in it for the long haul, and vigilantly so. The Republican leadership on the Hill has rejected demands for an independent 9/11-style commission. (Nunes dismissed the idea of a Special Prosecutor as “almost like McCarthyism revisited.”) That means that the House and Senate investigations may be the only chance for a public accounting on a host of critical questions including:
- Who and what the Russians hacked beyond John Podesta’s Gmail account and the DNC servers—and what else they did to disrupt the election.
- How and why the Obama Administration failed to anticipate or respond to the Russian campaign.
- What more can be done to harden our technology and our political system.
- What—if any—collusion took place between the Trump team and various Putin proxies, including Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.
Nunes is also pushing the White House’s mind game that the “major crimes” that most need investigating by the committee are alleged high level Intelligence Community leaks related to the Russia probe, including who revealed conversations by Flynn and other Trump players with the Russians.
On Monday the panel and the public will hear from FBI Director James Comey. Anyone for a pool on which member, from which party, gets in the first question about Trump’s “Obama wiretapped-me” claim? The answer should be a gratifying moment of sanity, although with Comey there are never guarantees. And if you are hoping that Trump will back down, you haven’t been paying attention. Nunes, who has been getting a lot of good press in the past few days for saying there is no evidence to support the President’s assertion, has also been arguing for weeks—even before Spicer and Co. came up with this defense—that Trump shouldn’t be taken literally.
The challenge for the committee’s ranking Democrat Adam Schiff , especially in the months to come, will be to keep the hearings focused on the important questions—about Russian hacking, who may have aided and abetted, and future defenses. Will the committee really be calling reporters to testify on their “deep state” sources? Schiff is a smart guy and an experienced prosecutor. But a committee chairman, especially in the House, has considerable power, and after the sorry campaign the Democrats ran against Trump and his mind games one has to wonder about their capacity to resist.
Before we fall into despair about the chances of getting anything useful out of this exercise, it’s also important to remember that true civic oversight like that of the Watergate or Truman Committee investigations are the exception for Congress. If your goal for these investigations is actual retribution for misdeeds committed or even a consensus finding, that is probably too much to expect given history and especially this crowd. Still, looking at past congressional investigations, one can learn a few lessons and hope for an astringent airing of some of the facts.
The first lesson is the least reassuring: Leadership matters. (Chairman Nunes, if you are you listening, a lot can still be forgiven if you choose to embrace the mantle.)
Sam Ervin is the iconic Chairman. His courtliness, moral certitude, and erudition made the Watergate hearings broadcast civics lessons. Most important, he had an ability, desperately needed now, to cut through the Nixon White House’s relentless obfuscation. While Nixon’s Press Secretary Ron Ziegler—the Sean Spicer of his day—dismissed Watergate as “a third-rate burglary,” Ervin’s opening remarks at the hearings explained the real stakes for the American public:
If the many allegations made to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States…. [W]hat they were seeking to steal was…their most precious heritage: the right to vote in a free election.
Ervin had the respect of his colleagues from both political parties. He was also a Democrat investigating a Republican President, so it may be too much (I am trying to be gracious) to suggest that Nunes take him on as his model.
Instead, I would urge his staffers immediately to give their boss a copy of Chapter 7 of David McCullough’s Truman. It tells the story of how an obscure Senator from Missouri—on the eve of World War II, with his own party in the White House—mounted a relentless investigation into waste, fraud, and abuse in defense contracting. In the process, Harry Truman and the bipartisan Truman Committee saved billions of dollars and countless American soldiers’ lives. (He never managed to vanquish the dollar-a-year men who continued to draw their full corporate salaries even as they doled out massive government contracts.) Two years later “Investigator Truman” was on the cover of Time; a year after that he was FDR’s running mate.
The lessons of the Truman Committee? McCullough credits Truman with self-awareness (from his reading of Civil War history “he knew what damage could be done to a President by Congressional harassment in a time of emergency, and the lives it could cost by prolonging the war”); choosing good staff ($9,000 of his original $15,000 budget went to an investigator who had just helped convict a Federal judge for fraud); and ultimately a willingness to criticize his own President. When Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, pressed him on the Senate floor to blame the White House for the bottlenecks and “lack of organization and coordination,” Truman answered, “There is only one place where the responsibility can be put.”
Trump is not a man to accept constructive criticism. But with the wheels already falling off this Administration, Mr. Chairman, it is time to start putting if not Country over Party, then at least Party over this President. (And maybe someday you’ll get that call from Mike Pence.)
The second lesson: Focus matters. The questions facing this committee are complicated, and the intel community—Monday’s witness list also includes NSA Director Mike Rogers—is obstructionist by nature, even when it wants a story out. The declassified version of the Intelligence Community’s January report that found Putin personally ordered a campaign of Internet trolling, hacking, and other efforts to influence the U.S. elections and ultimately favor Trump was damning but devoid of evidence.
Good bipartisan staff work can push the system to cough up its secrets. Watergate’s Samuel Dash, Terry Lenzner, Scott Armstrong, and Fred Thompson were masters. (Although later revelations about Thompson tipping off the White House about his question on the Oval Office taping system has tarnished that history.)
And it isn’t all about the Trump team. Russian hacking and possible collusion with a foreign power must be at the top of the agenda. But legitimate questions also need to be answered about why the Obama Administration wasn’t prepared for the Russian assault on the U.S. campaign; Putin had been hacking systems and spreading fake and malicious news in Eastern and Central Europe going back at least to the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
But it will be a constant challenge keeping the committee members focused on what matters, especially since the Trump mind games, at least, aren’t going to stop.
Schiff may try his best to resist a frontal assault on the First Amendment. But he and the other Democrats may be more vulnerable to appeals to their amour propre: congressional prerogative. Nunes has been pushing the idea that, while the intelligence community may not have been listening in on Trump, it was undoubtedly listening in on other Americans’ conversations with the Russians—and if the Americans were the target, then the community stiffed the “Gang of Eight” (the leaders of the two parties in the House and Senate and the leaders and ranking members of both intelligence committees) by failing to report the action.
Mark Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, says the law requires only that the Eight be “fully informed of all significant intelligence activity,” and he wouldn’t expect that to include “a mundane activity such as surveillance of the Russian Ambassador” or even a request for a warrant to eavesdrop on an American citizen suspected of involvement in foreign intelligence activity. He also says that he “can see how bitching and moaning about” being kept out of the loop “might take up a lot” of the committee’s time.
The third lesson: Sunlight may be all you get. The Trump White House is going to declare this a witch-hunt no matter what the investigators find. And there will be plenty of folks on the left who won’t be satisfied with anything less than a declaration that Trump is the Manchurian candidate, or at the very least in hock for billions to Kremlin cronies (a charge he could easily quash by releasing his taxes).
None of us should prejudge the outcome. But it is important to remember that deus ex machina, Nixon-colluding-with-Haldeman tapes are the exception. Even if there are more tapes of Trump aides on the phone with Russian officials, they may prove far less damning than Trump’s own public invitation to Russia during the campaign to “find” Hillary Clinton’s emails. Proving grand conspiracies and chasing them all the way to the top is almost always the stuff of fiction.
That doesn’t mean that an airing of the facts isn’t worth pursuing—even when you suspect you’re not getting them all. In this case, Congress’s 11-month investigation into Iran Contra is instructive.
In that we already knew the scandal’s outlines: White House officials secretly organized the sale of weapons to Iran (in violation of an arms embargo) to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon and then used the proceeds to secretly fund the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua (in violation of a congressional ban). By the end of the investigation, we knew a lot more about just how far out of control the Reagan White House and particularly the National Security Council staff had spun to launch and hide the conspiracy. But the investigation never answered the fundamental question: Was President Reagan behind it all?
Nearly three years after Congress finished its work, Seymour Hersh wrote an extensive piece in the Times magazine claiming there actually were several potential smoking guns—including recordings of Regan’s Oval Office telephone conversations with foreign leaders and a witness (an administrative officer) willing to testify he had seen White House documents describing illegal diversion of funds “meant for Reagan’s eyes.” The committee chiefs, Hersh wrote, looked the other way rather than risk a potential impeachment. I don’t know. I do know that it would be a huge mistake if Congress were to come to a similar decision today if there were any chance that a senior U.S. official is collaborating with representatives of a hostile foreign government.
As for the investigation’s outcome: There was no single consensus report from Congress. The majority report, signed by all the Democrats on the House and Senate panels but only three of the five Republican Senators, was blistering toward the White House: “Fundamental processes of governance were disregarded and the rule of law was subverted…. If the President did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.”
The minority report, signed by all five Republican members of the House committee and two Republican Senators, dismissed Iran Contra as the result of “mistakes in judgment, and nothing more. There was no constitutional crisis…no grand conspiracy…. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the [Majority] committees’ report tries to reach.”
Perhaps most frustrating for critics of the Reagan-era excesses in Central America: nearly everyone named in the investigation walked and several ended up back in government. George H.W. Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger, Elliott Abrams and four others.
So was the Iran-Contra investigation a failure? Lowenthal, who also served as Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production, says no. “The public got to hear what happened…and it did tighten up how administrations do covert action: You can’t post-date findings, or mingle actions…. When I was working at the Agency and operations were being discussed I can’t tell you how often ops guys would look over at the lawyers and ask are you absolutely sure we can do that. I think it gave people a sense of caution.”
Final thought: A responsible investigation may be the best revenge (or the best we can get).
I don’t know how many facts we will get to hear or where they will lead. Was there a grand conspiracy between Trump advisers, Julian Assange, and Moscow? Or was Vladimir Putin just tossing rocks to see what they might break? But I have no doubt that the Russian leader’s real and continuing goal is to shake the West’s faith in democratic systems.
A responsible investigation, with limited partisan sniping, limited diversions, and no cover-up would be the best revenge, for all of us. This White House doesn’t understand that. It never will. I still harbor some hope that Republicans in Congress will figure it out.