Julian Zelizer: Congress should set up a Watergate-style select committee to investigate the Russia controversy
Relying on the standing committees will very likely block any serious investigation
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He is co-host of the podcast “Politics & Polls.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
With every new revelation about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians, it becomes clearer that it’s time for Congress to set up a bipartisan select committee to investigate. Relying on the standing committees, which are locked into a strongly partisan approach, will very likely block any serious investigation of this explosive topic.
The Russia controversy has haunted President Trump and his administration from the very first days of his term. Indeed, the New York Times reported, that in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign the Obama administration was archiving vast amounts of material about the Russian intervention in the election.
There are two pieces to this scandal, each of which has caused great concern. The first, which has been confirmed by the intelligence agencies, is that the Russians mounted a concerted effort to manipulate the presidential election through the hacking of the Democratic National Committee as well as through the dissemination of what some call “fake news.”
The second part has revolved around the contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The latest revelation comes with the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with the Russian ambassador twice last year despite saying at his confirmation hearing that “I did not have communications with the Russians.” On Thursday afternoon, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from investigations of the matter, following calls to do so from Democrats and some prominent Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Rob Portman and Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Currently, the plan for a congressional investigation has centered on the standing committees in the House and Senate, both of which are controlled by the Republicans. The Intelligence committees have taken the lead on the investigation instead of armed services or foreign relations.
Although the chairman of the committee in the Senate, Richard Burr of North Carolina, has promised to conduct a thorough investigation, he has been extremely close to Trump throughout his campaign serving as his national security adviser. There have been disclosures that Burr helped the White House to push back against critical stories about the Trump-Russia connections.
The problem with the standing committees is that partisanship is too powerful a force in contemporary politics to trust them to do a good job. This investigation revolves around a very serious question – the integrity of the electoral process and the potential high crimes and misdemeanors of key members of Trump’s inner circle.
Even though there is mounting pressure to figure out what actually happened, partisan pressure on the GOP will also create huge disincentives for any member of the House and Senate who wants to take a tough stand against their own President. Despite the rumbling on Capitol Hill, thus far partisanship has been a driving force in the first hundred days of the Trump administration.
The best model for a select committee can be found from 1973, when Sen. Sam Ervin, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina, headed a select committee to look into President Nixon and Watergate. The ranking Republican on the committee was Howard Baker from Tennessee. The committee was a model of what Congress can do when it takes its responsibilities seriously.
Although we remember the great work of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in uncovering this affair, Congress was a serious player in revealing the wrongdoing that had taken place in the Nixon’s White House. The folksy Ervin started his work in March with a five-hour hearing. But there were so many leaks that day that he and his colleagues decided to conduct the remainder of their work in public. He started the investigation by warning that “The Founding Fathers knew that those who are entrusted with power are susceptible to the disease of tyrants, which George Washington rightly described as ‘love of power and the proneness to abuse it.’”
Starting in May, the committee conducted televised hearings in the summer of 1973, as Americans watched high-ranking officials confess to the many ways in which Nixon abused power, wiretapped Americans, conducted campaign dirty tricks, and handed out money to keep guilty allies quiet about their misdeeds.
Like the chorus of a powerful song, Sen. Baker kept asking his colleagues and the nation, the main question that was on everyone’s mind: “What did the President know, and when did he know it.” CBS, ABC, and NBC all broadcast portions of the hearings while PBS let Americans every evening watch what had happened earlier.
According to some studies, over 85% of Americans watched some of the hearings. Watergate became a subject of national conversation as a result. The committee hired a skilled chief counsel Sam Dash to help them ensure the integrity of the work.
“I scripted it like a story,” Dash recalled, “like a detective story. The most important thing I had to do was convey the information to the public in a way they could understand.” He was successful. The nation learned how far off course Nixon’s administration had gone in pursuit of political power.
Approval ratings for Congress reached record high levels in these years and most experts agree that the committee’s work was a main factor.
Establishing a bipartisan select committee to investigate Russia would give both parties equal power in handling this investigation. The committee would also be able to devote all of its time and energy to this single issue rather than relying on standing committees that have a lot of other work to do. A select committee could do its business in public, just like Ervin and Baker did in that long, hot summer of 1973, so that the public could see and hear for themselves exactly what happened.
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Although partisanship could still impact their work – as was evident with the committee that investigated Iran Contra in 1987 – the odds for a more thorough investigation are greater, particularly if the Senate selects a chair, like Sen. John McCain, who has proven his or her willingness to buck the party line and the president.
The person who should be most eager for the establishment of a fair, bipartisan committee that will have public credibility is President Trump himself. If there really is nothing to hide, and the media has made too much of the stories about the connections that existed with the Russians, a select committee would be the only way to deliver a convincing report that confirms that once and for all. Otherwise, this scandal will continue to loom as a dark cloud over the administration, and the GOP, as more stories emerge.