We need a thorough congressional investigation into President Donald Trump’s Russia ties and we need it now. The explosive disclosure that the FBI is conducting a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Kremlin further demonstrated the critical role Congress can play in informing the public and advancing the investigation. Yet the farcical actions of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes have now cast doubt on the ability of the Congress to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. While the FBI will take its time working behind closed doors, it is imperative that Congress also investigate Trump’s connections both to keep the public informed and figure out a response to this attack on our democracy.
Congressional intelligence committees are now initiating inquiries into Russia’s multipronged campaign to undermine the U.S. democratic process and help elect Donald Trump to the presidency. The committees owe the American public answers on three central issues:
- The multiple layers of Russia’s campaign against the U.S. electoral process
- The scope and nature of the connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, and whether such activity involved potentially criminal acts
- Whether and how Russia might have leverage over the president of the United States
We need benchmarks to evaluate the process ahead.
First, the intelligence community has unanimously determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened to shake confidence in the electoral process and help Donald Trump’s candidacy for president.
To understand the prospective threat to our democratic process and those of our allies, Congress must provide full transparency into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential campaign. Not simply the hacking and dissemination of emails, but also potential oligarch participation through dark pools of campaign financing, fake news, social media platforms, and weaponizing intelligence information. Congress should make explicit its conclusions on the intelligence agencies’ assessment of “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.” Confirmation by an independent and co-equal branch of government would reaffirm confidence in the intelligence community. This would also prod Congress to ensure Russian meddling doesn’t happen again—such as by imposing stronger sanctions against Russia to deter further action or by taking steps to protect of our electoral infrastructure.
Second, Congress should provide a full public accounting of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The scope of the Trump entourage’s contacts with Russia, and the chronic memory disorder President Trump’s surrogates exhibit with each revelation, paint a troubling picture that is unprecedented on a presidential level.
The multiple confirmed contacts, the payments from Russian entities to Trump staff and advisors, and the consistent evasion of the truth come in the context of a candidate and now president repeatedly expressing admiration and respect for President Putin and even suggesting moral equivalency between the United States and Russia. Congress is obliged to uncover and publicly disclose the extent and purpose of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian emissaries. It must watch for and publicly disclose evidence of political interference into law enforcement investigations into those contacts so calls for a special prosecutor can be renewed, if necessary. Given the unprecedented pattern of facts and the stakes involved, Congress must give the American public the transparency it deserves.
Third, Congress should inform the public with respect to any facts or circumstances that could leave the President of the United States subject to the influence of an adversarial foreign power through financial or other points of leverage. Beyond President Trump’s uncovering previously undiscovered parallels between the conduct of Russia and the United States, the Administration has suggested or is reportedly considering policy shifts that would benefit Russia: relaxed sanctions, reduced support for Ukraine, and recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Whether the shift in tone and approach reflects potential Russian influence or leverage demands investigation.
There are press reports of the president conducting business with Russia, and Donald Trump Jr. asserted in 2008 that Russians “make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets.” Congress should demand access to the president’s tax returns and other relevant financial records and documents. The American people are entitled to understand any potential leverage, just as they have the right to understand leverage created by certain transactions and gifts from foreign entities that senior federal employees must report. Even if the facts do not lend themselves to irrefutable conclusions, the facts should still be public.
Orin S. Kramer manages a private investment fund and formerly served in the Carter administration.