We are now officially in the midst of yet another Republican civil skirmish. Two days ago, Axios broke the news that the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee had “subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. to answer questions about his previous testimony before Senate investigators.” At issue, we later learned, is an apparent discrepancy between Trump Jr.’s previous testimony and the testimony of President Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen.
Reportedly, the committee subpoenaed Donald Jr. several weeks ago, before Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell declared “case closed” on the question of whether there had been a “conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign.” So shouldn’t Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, drop the subpoena? Hasn’t Special Counsel Robert Mueller already covered this ground? Is Burr now just a “RINO” who is “doing the bidding of vindictive Democrats”? Is he, as Rand Paul claims, defying McConnell’s “case closed” edict?
Not at all. Burr should be left alone to do his job. Despite Mueller’s report, Congress still has a vital role to play, and the president’s allies should not be permitted to neuter the superior branch of government.
Let’s make this as simple as possible. First, the special counsel’s report does not render the Senate Intelligence Committee’s work either moot or irrelevant. The special counsel and the committee have different missions. As Marco Rubio explained yesterday, “Mueller [was] a criminal-justice investigation. Ours is an intelligence investigation about the Russia threat and about the way our agencies performed.”
While Rubio understates the counterintelligence elements of the Mueller investigation, the differences between it and the Intelligence Committee’s investigation are still obvious and important. Mueller, for example, did not focus on the full extent of the broader Russian threat beyond the campaign or on evaluating the performance of our own intelligence agencies in confronting that threat. The scope of the special-counsel investigation and the focus of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation overlap, but they are not identical – not by a long shot.
It’s a matter of sheer logic and common sense that a broader examination of Russian activity and intentions will include an examination of Russian ties or contacts with American citizens even if those ties or contacts aren’t criminal.
Moreover, it’s just naïve and strange to believe that in the absence of criminal conspiracies there is no need for further inquiry. While there is no meaningful evidence that Russia’s disruption operation swayed the outcome of the 2016 election, in other respects it was remarkably successful at sowing discord, confusion, and division in the American body politic. It’s vital to understand exactly what Russia did, how Americans (including American governmental institutions) responded, and whether we’re vulnerable to future disruptions.
Second, it’s standard (and necessary) for a congressional committee to seek additional testimony in the event of conflicting accounts. If two witnesses contradict each other, it would be investigative malpractice not to probe further. And when probing further, there is no substitute for live testimony. The ability to ask probing follow-up questions is invaluable to the quest for truth. Canned, lawyer-crafted written responses are a poor substitute for a closely examined personal account.
Writing at Commentary, Noah Rothman has carefully noted three areas of potential interest for the Intelligence Committee: 1) Was Trump Jr. fully forthcoming with the committee about the nature and purpose of the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya?; 2) Does the committee have complete information about Trump Jr.’s contacts with Wikileaks?; and, most notably, 3) How much did he know about (or participate in) efforts to build a Trump Tower Moscow?
Third, the Senate Intelligence Committee is fulfilling its constitutional role. I completely understand the widespread GOP frustration that the special counsel’s investigation represented the executive branch investigating itself. Especially as it relates to possible obstruction of justice, this state of affairs creates confusing and complex legal distortions. (For example, can a president truly unlawfully obstruct justice by firing an employee he has a right to fire or by modifying an investigation he has a right to modify?)
But these objections and concerns simply don’t apply to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the executive’s decision to investigate itself through the special-counsel appointment is irrelevant to the Senate’s constitutional authority and the Intelligence Committee’s oversight obligations.
The Intelligence Committee’s investigation predates the Mueller investigation. It has a different (and broader) scope than the Mueller investigation. And it operates in a separate — and superior — branch of government. Moreover, Burr’s conduct throughout the committee’s investigation has been exemplary, and the committee’s work has been professional and bipartisan.
Chairman Burr is not running a “witch hunt,” and out of basic respect for the law, for the Senate, and for the constitutional structure of our government, Trump Jr. should comply with the Intelligence Committee’s subpoena. The Committee doesn’t just have a right to seek the truth from him, it has an obligation to do so. Burr’s GOP critics should stand down. He is doing exactly what he is supposed to do.