EDITORIAL

Russian investigation one of many Congress should undertake

Posted Feb. 16, 2017, at 1:45 p.m.

With the departure of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, questions about the administration’s dealings with Russia have multiplied. Gen. Michael Flynn resigned his position abruptly on Monday, saying he had misled administration officials about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador before Trump’s inauguration.

Trump, predictably, has blamed intelligence agencies for leaking information and the media for reporting what he calls fake news, rather than taking the blame for Flynn’s inappropriate contacts with a Russian official.

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Trump campaign officials and other Trump associates repeatedly had conversations with Russian government officials in the year before the presidential election. The paper said it was not known whether the election or Trump was discussed during these conversations. These contacts are separate from Flynn’s pre-inauguration conversations in which he talked about U.S. sanctions on Russia with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which were monitored by the FBI.

The president himself has generated more suspicion of Russian involvement in the election and beyond with his frequent comments praising Russia and its dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin.

Frida Ghitis from Foreign Policy offers a good summation of the problem: “The Trump administration no doubt hopes that by firing Flynn, it can signal he was acting alone, that he ‘went rogue.’ But without a credible, thorough investigation into what transpired before the election, it is impossible to know if Flynn was following the administration’s playbook and whether Trump or his administration is guilty of something much more serious,” Ghitis wrote.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is already investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the committee chairman, and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s vice chairman, said the investigation would expand to include Flynn’s actions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republican senators also backed such an expansion of the committee’s review.

This is the appropriate venue for such an investigation, for now.

The Intelligence Committee already has staff in place, with the necessary security clearances, to do this work. Both of Maine’s senators, Republican Susan Collins and Angus King, an independent, serve on the committee.

Creating another committee, as some in Congress have suggested, will delay this needed work because committee members would need to be named, staff hired and security clearances completed. An independent commission would face these delays, plus Trump would likely get to appoint members.

“It’s clearly and squarely in the jurisdiction of the intelligence committee, which already has the trained staff with security clearances who have already begun gathering the information, the documents necessary to begin this review. They’re well into this investigation,” Collins said in a statement Wednesday. “So calls for a special committee would only serve to greatly slow down the investigation.”

Sen. Angus King agrees. He said he will “raise hell” if the Intelligence Committee’s review becomes partisan. He will also push to make as much of the committee’s work as possible open to public view, as soon as possible, he said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News Thursday.

There are plenty of other potential Trump administration ethics violations for other congressional committees to investigate. For example, the Office of Government Ethics, sent a letter to the White House Tuesday recommending that it investigate Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s fashion line during a television appearance from the White House.

There are Melania Trump’s claims, in a lawsuit, that she could build “multi-million dollar business relationships” during a time when she would be “one of the most photographed women in the world” — making it sound as if she hoped to personally profit from being first lady.

These are just a couple examples of the Trump family’s conflicts of interest that have yet to be resolved.

Also on Tuesday, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Republican Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who has been loath to look into Trump, sent a letter to the White House asking for more information about the president’s handling of documents related to North Korea on a crowded outdoor terrace at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Florida. Nearby diners posted photos of the national security discussion on social media.

Every day, it seems, we learn more about the dysfunction of the Trump administration. Some may be attributed to the typical missteps that come from building a new administration. When it comes to Russia, however, there are troubling signs that the administration continues to withhold information and mislead lawmakers and the public about the extent and nature of its ties with the Putin regime.

 

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