Mitch McConnell announced this morning that he favors an investigation into any efforts by Russia to tip the election to Donald Trump, observing: “The Russians are not our friends.” A spokesman for Paul Ryan appeared to confirm this afternoon that the House Speaker, too, supports a similar probe, though he was more circumspect about it.
So now what happens? There are two basic things to keep an eye on in the short term: Who conducts these investigations, and how they are defined.
Nate Persily, a professor of law at Stanford University, told me today that a lot will turn on which investigative model is selected. Will it be an outside panel similar to the 9/11 Commission, created by Congress? Or will it be joint Senate and House committees created by Congress for the express purpose of probing alleged Russian interference, similar to the Iran-Contra committees?
It will almost certainly be neither of those. The most likely outcome in the short term will be that these investigations will be run through existing Congressional committees. McConnell today insisted that the Senate Intel Committee would be up to the task of probing potential Russian interference, and Ryan’s spokesman also appeared to suggest that the House Intel Committee would likely carry out any investigation.
“That approach has less independence,” Persily said. “There’s less potential for randomness and jurisdiction-spreading if you keep it within the formal organs of Congress.”
Another related question will be how genuinely bipartisan such investigations end up being — probes run through existing committees can of course devolve into extended partisan bickering matches, depending how they’re run (see the Benghazi probes, for instance).
Which feeds into the next big question: How will the missions of these investigations be defined? “You could see these inquiries being very focused on specific allegations of hacking of the DNC and the like,” Persily says. “Or you can see them being quite general — more about how we protect ourselves against cyber-intrusions from foreign powers.”
House Democrats like Rep. Elijah Cummings are already pressing (unsurprisingly) for a much more genuinely bipartisan approach and an independent commission, and Chuck Schumer is likely to call for the Senate inquiry’s findings to be made partially public. Still, such outcomes are only going to be more likely if more revelations lead to more public pressure on Congress. And there’s no telling whether that will happen.
One interesting nuance worth keeping an eye on here: Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have emerged as leading GOP proponents of a bipartisan probe. They are likely motivated to a great extent by their hawkishness towards Russia, but precisely because of this, they could continue demanding a real accounting, which could end up helping to produce more pressure for a sounder process, one more along the lines of what Democrats are advocating.
Meanwhile, Dr. Evelyn Farkas, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015, wrote a piece for Politico today outlining the questions these inquiries should seek to answer:
1) What did Russia do to interfere in U.S. elections?
2) Did any American citizens collude with Russia to assist in the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections? If so how, and were Trump associates, or Trump himself, aware?
3) Have Russians given or loaned Donald Trump and/or his businesses money, or provided collateral or other financial assistance to Donald Trump?
Of course, one thing we can be reasonably certain of is that there will be very little pressure on Trump from Congressional Republicans to show the sort of transparency about his holdings that might help answer Question Number Three, and its hard to imagine GOP-led investigations going there. Of course, that could change, if new revelations make it harder politically for Republicans to maintain that stance.
And to make this more complex still, there’s the role of the CIA in all of this. The permanent intelligence establishment seems to be taking all of it very seriously: Former CIA acting director Michael Morell said today that the news of potential Russian interference was “the political equivalent of 9/11.” Trump doesn’t appear to take this quite as seriously, and if relations continue to deteriorate between Trump and the intelligence community, more leaks may mysteriously materialize.
All of which is to say that this whole mess is very open ended — we have no idea where it will lead, if anywhere. Oh, and one last point. Says Persily: “This is going to take years.”