Why Democrats Are Still Calling for an Independent Russia Commission

Even after the DOJ appointed a special counsel, some Democrats want to go further.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi meets with reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
May 18, 2017, 8 p.m.

Democrats got their first wish when the Justice Department named a special counsel to take over its investigation into the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to President Trump’s associates. Now they are still hoping another one will be granted: an independent commission.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller to handle the Russia probe was met with applause by congressional Democrats, who were united in their push for a special prosecutor after Trump unceremoniously fired FBI Director James Comey. Some in the Senate went as far as to say they would refuse to consider a nominee for Comey’s replacement until one was named.

But for some Democrats on the Hill, a special counsel isn’t enough. Long before Comey’s firing, Democrats had been calling for an independent commission to look into Russian election meddling. And they’ve reiterated those calls in the wake of Mueller’s appointment, arguing that a separate commission would have complete independence from the White House, as well as the ability to provide legislative recommendations to help prevent future election interference.

There are key differences between a special counsel and an independent commission. While a special counsel is appointed by the attorney general (or deputy attorney general in this case, since Jeff Sessions recused himself), an independent commission consisting of outside experts is set up by Congress and approved by the president, like the one created after the 9/11 attacks. And while a special counsel has the unique ability to prosecute crimes, a commission is only able to produce a report of its findings.

Many Democrats think both are needed for the current Trump-Russia probe.

“The value an independent commission adds is you have a body that is truly independent of any political consideration, and also has all the resources it needs and a single focus on the oversight of what Russia did, how we need to respond in the future, and it brings that political independence and staff and resources on task,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own Russia investigation. “So those are two different needs, and I think they’re complementary, not in competition with each other.”

Democratic leaders, as well as a host of rank-and-file members in both chambers, have made clear they want an independent commission too. In a statement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that a special counsel “is the first step, but it cannot be the last,” adding that Mueller “cannot take the place of a truly independent, outside commission.” House Democrats tried to force a floor vote on an independent commission Wednesday.

Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said an independent commission was necessary “to develop policies to help protect ourselves in future elections from any country hacking into us.” And Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who introduced legislation at the beginning of the year to establish an independent commission, echoed those remarks in a statement.

The problem for Democrats, though, is that they will need not only their Republican colleagues but Trump to go along with their plan. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have previously called for a bipartisan select committee, which unlike an independent commission would be made up solely of members of Congress. Hours before Rosenstein’s announcement, Sen. Lisa Murkowski raised the possibility of a need for a special counsel or independent commission. Otherwise, no other Republican in the Senate has publicly called for an independent commission.

On the other side of the Capitol, only 10 House Republicans had called for an independent investigation of some kind, whether a commission, committee, or counsel, prior to Mueller’s appointment, according to The Washington Post. Reps. Justin Amash and Walter Jones signed onto legislation in support of an independent commission.

Trump, for his part, referred to the Russian investigations as “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history” on Twitter.

Aside from a lack of Republican support to add another investigation into members of their own party, some Democrats were also not as quick to push for an independent commission. Patty Murray, the no. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said “there are a number of other avenues that will be pursued as well” following Mueller’s appointment. “We’re still gathering facts,” she added.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, suggested a select committee may be necessary “before it’s all said and done.” But between the congressional probes and the special counsel, she said that time is not now.

“As long as the bipartisan investigations in both houses are moving forward and we’re making progress, I don’t know that it’s essential,” McCaskill said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also left the door open to an independent commission, but raised concerns about having too many investigations occurring at once.

“Ultimately, there probably is a danger in having too many cooks in the kitchen,” Murphy said.

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