The Trump-Russia Connection: Why a Special Counsel is Not Enough

By: Eleanor Wertman, MPH

Over the past few weeks, evidence has emerged to suggest that Donald Trump’s administration is actively working to suppress investigations of his campaign’s ties to Russian interference in the 2016 elections. On May 9, Trump took the unprecedented step of firing FBI Director James Comey. Trump initially claimed that he fired Comey at the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a letter condemning how Comey handled Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. However, Trump later admitted in an interview on national television that he decided to fire Comey because of the FBI’s investigation of his team, stating: “And in fact when I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’.”   

Congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle condemned Comey’s firing. Even Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr, who has faced criticism for failing to commit time and resources to his committee’s Russia investigation, spoke out against Comey’s termination. “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” Burr remarked. “I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”

In the wake of Comey’s termination, additional troubling revelations have emerged about the Trump team’s connections to Russia. The day after he fired Comey, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. During the meeting, Trump revealed highly classified information about an Islamic State terrorist threat to the Russian officials without permission from Israel, the ally who initially shared the information with the United States. The disclosure angered Israeli intelligence officials and may have compromised an important source of information about the Islamic State’s activities.

Meanwhile, the New York Times broke the news that, back in February, Trump asked Comey to drop the federal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn resigned after it was revealed that he had undisclosed conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, weeks after acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump’s team that Flynn could be subject to Russian blackmail. Additionally, the Washington Post obtained audio and transcripts from a 2016 meeting of Republican leadership in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy joked about Trump being on Putin’s payroll. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [California Republican Rep. Dana] Rohrabacker and Trump,” McCarthy said. House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately interrupted McCarthy to cut off the conversation and urged those present not to discuss it further, stating, “No leaks, all right?,” Ryan said, adding: “This is how we know we’re a real family here.” Given that Congressional Republicans control the investigations of Trump’s Russian connections in both the House and Senate, Ryan’s cavalier attitude about Putin’s influence over Trump is especially troubling.

Trump’s startlingly inappropriate intelligence disclosures to Russian officials and blatant efforts to obstruct any investigation of his administration, combined with Republicans’ apparent longstanding awareness of his Russian connections, suggest the serious need for an independent investigation uncontrolled by the executive or legislative branches of government. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took an important step in this direction when he appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller III as a special counsel, i.e. someone who investigates allegations that could constitute a conflict of interest within the Department of Justice, to oversee a nonpartisan investigation of Trump’s campaign. Mueller is widely respected as a nonpartisan public servant with a commitment to challenging presidential abuses of power. As a special counsel, Mueller is tasked with investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, as well as any additional issues “that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” Department of Justice regulations provide Mueller with the same authority as a United States attorney, including the ability to subpoena information and initiate criminal charges.

However, Mueller’s powers come with limits. Until 1999, special prosecutors could not be fired by the president, thanks to a law passed in the wake of President Nixon’s Watergate scandal. In 1999, however, Congress let this provision expire and instead issued new guidelines that let an attorney general appoint a special counsel (Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russian investigations after admitting he’d lied about meetings with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during Trump’s campaign). Mueller’s ties to the Department of Justice may limit his investigation’s scope and independence from the Trump administration. For example, Department of Justice precedent suggests the president may be immune to criminal prosecution, which could make it impossible for Mueller to indict Trump. The Department of Justice can fire Mueller or even override his decisions.

Thus, while Mueller’s appointment and Congressional committees’ long-overdue moves to investigate Trump’s Russian connections more thoroughly are steps in the right direction, they still leave ample room for partisan interference in the search for the truth. Indeed, Reuters has reported that the White House is already investigating avenues to undermine Mueller’s work, Mueller’s investigation is also predicted to take years to complete. We must continue to advocate for the creation of a wholly independent special commission, which could work independently from both Congress and the Trump-controlled Department of Justice. Democrats introduced legislation to establish just such a bipartisan commission months ago. These bills, HR 356 and S 27, have languished in Republican-led committees. In an attempt to move this legislation forward, Eric Swalwell (D-CA) introduced a discharge petition to force a vote on HR 356 in the full House. If the petition can get 218 signatures (as of 5/19, it had 191, including signatures from Durham Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield), the entire House will vote on the bill, demonstrating whether or not Republicans are willing to give the Russian investigation the serious consideration it deserves.

The evidence of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia just keeps coming. Just last Thursday, news broke that Michael Flynn and other Trump advisers had 18 previously undisclosed contacts with Russian officials towards the end of the 2016 campaign. On Friday, sources reported that the FBI has identified a senior White House official as a “significant person of interest” in their ongoing Russia investigation. Congress must act to protect our democracy now and establish an independent commission. The integrity of our government and our national security are at stake.

Call Representatives Price (202.225.1784) and Butterfield ((202) 225-3101) today to thank them for supporting the discharge petition to force a vote on HR 356. Then, call Senators Burr and Tillis and demand they support S 27 and advocate for an independent commission to investigate Trump’s Russia ties.