Along with millions of other Americans, I was justifiably alarmed by President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, Jr., in the midst of the Bureau’s investigation of the President’s 2016 campaign for possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
However, a measure of confidence that we remain a nation of laws was restored by the appointment of universally respected former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III, to serve as a U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel, expressly charged with overseeing the FBI’s investigation of the Russian intervention, any collusion by individuals associated with the Trump presidential campaign, and any related violations of our laws.
In this context, it is essential that all of us keep several important considerations in mind about the continuing investigations by the Congress, the FBI and our other intelligence agencies:
- A Clear, Present & Continuing Danger to our Democratic System
First, we must recall that in early January of this year our foremost intelligence agencies (the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and others) issued their shared and well-considered report assessing Russian intentions and actions directed toward influencing the result of our 2016 presidential election.
Even the unclassified version of their conclusions should chill every American to the core. Consider just four of their determinations:
Notwithstanding the doubts subsequently expressed by President Trump, in January, our national intelligence agencies found, with a significant degree of confidence, that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an extensive campaign to influence the outcome of our 2016 elections.
The broader Russian objective was to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” However, during the course of the Russian intervention, “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Moscow’s strategy included “covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity— with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or trolls.”
Most important for every American in assessing the threat to our democracy, the intelligence agencies determined that “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.”
The intelligence report makes it clear that the threat to America is bigger than how any of us feels about the outcome of last year’s presidential election. In very real terms, we are in a fight for the very soul of our democracy.
- Multi-Faceted Investigations
In this fight, our nation’s response must necessarily focus on three interrelated, but separate, challenges:
We must (1) protect our democratic institutions against future foreign interference in our elections; (2) bring to justice any who may have engaged in criminal collusion with the Russians and their 2016 attacks and (3) address any actions by those currently in power that may amount to obstruction of justice.
Although the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller is an important development in our national response to the Russian intervention in our election, his charge (primarily although not exclusively) is one of law enforcement. His investigations will focus primarily upon any possible collusion by Americans with the Russians before the election and any subsequent efforts to cover-up those misdeeds.
The continuing engagement by the Congress is different, but just as essential, if not more so. There is ample precedent for congressional investigations continuing while a Special Counsel investigation is ongoing and their purposes are fundamentally different.
While the Special Counsel is exclusively investigating potential crimes, Congress is investigating a host of other issues within our core jurisdiction, such as the White House vetting process for General Flynn, why he was allowed to keep his security clearance after Sally Yates warned the White House that he was compromised and whether he may have jeopardized national security by disclosing information to the Russians.
- The Critical Need for a Bipartisan Commission
Our overriding duty is to assure that foreign intervention in our fundamental electoral process is never again allowed to play any significant role in the outcome of our elections.
Although the priorities of law enforcement and legislating are not always easily squared in addressing challenges of this complexity, I have confidence that Special Counsel Mueller and the congressional investigating committees now at work will be able to work together to serve the American people and our democratic system.
With notable exceptions, however, the glacial pace of congressional investigations into the Russian attacks has left me with less confidence in my Republican colleagues. Although none of our congressional investigations to date have focused upon the actions last year of Donald Trump as candidate, many Republicans continue to view this challenge as an attack on his presidency.
We in the Congress must do better. Republican and Democrats must not only find common ground, we must achieve the higher ground, beyond partisanship, that only our shared love of our country and the urgency of the Russian threat can sustain.
We should continue our own investigations, but we must also enlist the aid of an independent, non-partisan, investigative commission to assist us in achieving that higher ground.
Along with Congressman Eric Swalwell, the entire Democratic Caucus, and two deeply concerned Republicans, Congressmen Walter B. Jones and Justin Amash, we are urging our colleagues to adopt the Protecting Our Democracy Act .
Our proposed independent commission would be empowered to examine past attempts by the Russian government or others to undermine trust in last year’s U.S. elections and make recommendations to Congress and the President to prevent future foreign interference.
We are in a fight for the soul of our democracy, and, in the words of President Donald Trump, we must rise above partisanship and “put America first.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.