The intelligence community’s allegation that Russia intervened covertly in the 2016 election describes a significant assault on US democracy. The country needs to know more: The charge needs to be followed up with an independent investigation that continues after Donald Trump becomes president on Jan. 20.
The US Congress should commit now to such a bipartisan inquiry. If there’s a possibility that US laws were violated by the Russian political attack, the FBI and the US Justice Department should begin a formal legal investigation. The Justice probe could be led by an independent counsel or an experienced US attorney, such as Preet Bharara of the southern district of New York, whom Trump has already said he will reappoint.
The allegations about Russian hacking are framed in the unclassified report released last Friday by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, on behalf of the CIA, FBI and NSA. That report made strong charges, but it didn’t provide detailed supporting evidence, which is contained in other, classified reports. The allegations are public, in other words, but not the proof.
That’s a bad mix. Indeed, it’s potentially toxic when Trump has criticized the investigation as a “political witch hunt,” and Reince Priebus, his choice for White House chief of staff, said the Clapper report is “clearly politically motivated to discredit” Trump’s victory.
Somehow, this allegation of foreign meddling has to be taken out of politics. Otherwise, it’s too incendiary. It could be abused by Trump’s critics, or by Trump himself. An independent inquiry is the best way to safeguard the rule of law, and the insistence that nobody is above it.
Recall what the intelligence chiefs alleged in the Clapper report: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. ... We also assess Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
How did Putin organize and implement this manipulative campaign? What funds were used, and from what source? Were any Americans involved in the effort? Did any Americans meet improperly with Russian operatives, in the US or abroad? Does Russia believe it has any leverage over Trump, financial or otherwise? Are remnants of the Russian network still in place?
On any such details of the alleged “influence campaign,” the report is silent. That’s understandable, in terms of protecting sources and methods, but frustrating for those who want hard facts to combat the “post-truth” environment in which people are skeptical of any assertion that lacks proof.
At the top of each page of Clapper’s report is a reminder: “Conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign.”
I’d argue that there is a genuine public “need to know” more of the supporting information, even if that carries risks.
A hint of the secret investigation emerged on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Chuck Todd pressed Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, on whether there were “active investigations going on to try to figure out if there was coordination between campaigns and Moscow.” Graham answered that the FBI and other agencies should “get to the bottom of all things Russia when it came to the 2016 ... election. Period.” And he added: “I believe that it’s happening.”
Nobody stands to gain more from a careful, unbiased investigation than Trump, assuming the Russians were acting alone. A thorough inquiry would give his presidency the solid legitimacy that any victor desires. It would also dispel worries that his moves toward rapprochement with Russia are tainted.
Inevitably, as members of US Congress are briefed this week on the classified version of the report, there will be leaks. That will provide more information to the public, which is good, but also more complaints about partisan leaking, which isn’t. Incomplete or tendentious news reports could simply muddy the water, rather than fostering clarity.
Trump seems to think that he can bury the investigation by treating it as a creation of his political enemies and what he likes to call the “dishonest media.” He may well succeed, absent some formal investigative process that’s endorsed by bipartisan congressional leaders, or shielded by our legal system.
Such an investigation could actually pull a divided country together. Once it began, any attempt to subvert or steer it would be difficult. If it ended favorably for Trump, it would resolve questions that could otherwise haunt his presidency. The alternative is a continuing miasma of speculation and political skullduggery, which would be bad for everyone.
By David Ignatius
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.--Ed.
(Washington Post Writers Group)