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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