Why Congress Won’t Investigate Michael Flynn, Russia and Donald Trump (Yet)
The revelations of Michael Flynn’s interactions with Russia during the election and transition periods would be enough to trigger rigorous investigations and perhaps even impeachment hearings in a normal administration or in a normal time. However, the chances of either of these things happening now are quite small. The pattern of a Trump outrage whether it be a racist statement or a scandal that may well be treasonous is now well established. Progressives and Democrats express shock and sometimes demand investigations, while Republicans express muted concern for a day or two and then go back to the important work of taking healthcare away from ordinary Americans and further transferences of wealth to the rich. Rand Paul, the Republican Senator from Kentucky and erstwhile presidential contender articulated this Republican position on investigations with admirable clarity last week.
There are two reasons why investigations of any kind are extremely likely, and one glimmer of hope that his might change. First, although Michael Flynn’s discussion with Russian officials may be appalling, these revelations more or less confirm what many knew before the election. If everything about Russia’s role in our election had been unknown until now, this would be a different story, one that would force the hands of Republicans in congress, but that is not the case. Rather, Congress, particularly those in the leadership who were privy to the intelligence information before the election, knew about the relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign, but chose to ignore it because they wanted their team to win the election.
Thus, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and other powerful Republicans cannot call for investigations because those investigations will quickly lead to the question, perhaps posed by witnesses from the Trump administration, of why nothing was said before the election. In other words, last year, when Republican leaders learned about Russia’s role and decided to ignore it, they left themselves little choice but to bury this scandal as deeply as possible. Michael Flynn’s resignation doesn’t change that.
The Justice Department could also establish an investigation, but it is extremely unlikely that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would do that. In fact, one of the primary reasons Sessions, an early Trump supporter who is deeply loyal to the President, was appointed was precisely so he would prevent the Justice Department from looking into the wrongdoings of the Trump administration or campaign. Sessions was sufficiently close to the campaign that it is very possible he was either aware of the relationship with Russia or, at the very least, the Trump administration could make that argument during an investigation. In either case, that is not something the Attorney General wants discussed publicly. Calls for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of Russia are admirable, but unlikely to lead to a meaningful inquiry. Therefore, the Justice Department is pretty unlikely to get too involved in the business of brining justice to bear on this matter.
What makes this scandal unique in American history is that, while it is an offense that is impeachable, and that makes both Watergate and the Clinton scandals that brought about his impeachment, but not his conviction, look like a day at the beach, it all occurred and was known before the election. Other presidents committed offenses that drew attention, scrutiny and even impeachment once they were in office. Trump did it all in the year preceding the election. This has brought him immunity of a sort, because if he is impeached, it will be very easy to bring down much of the Republican Party with him. This is the Faustian, and poorly thought out, that the Republicans made when they nominated and then rallied behind this more than slightly unhinged kleptocrat with authoritarian, and perhaps treasonous tendencies.
Although Trump and his Bannonite movement have vowed, and already begun, to undermine our democracy, the US is still clearly democratic enough that there are ways to change this grim reality. Republicans in congress have shown that concerns about national security are not enough for them to launch an investigation. If that were the case, there would have been an investigation during the transition period. However, if they believe that their jobs, and the future of their party are at stake will change. Currently, Trump’s ratings are dismal, but just under 40 percent of the people approve of the job he is doing. That is a big enough chunk of the population that Trump can effectively threaten any Republican with a primary challenge and the wrath of GOP loyalists. However, if that number gets below 30 percent, the political landscape will change dramatically as many Republicans will realize that the key to getting reelected, and indeed holding the party together, lies in breaking with Trump.
The margin between a 35 and 30 approval rating may seem small, but the future of the Trump administration may lie in that very small margin. This is one of the reasons the President continues his buffoonish, bullying and bizarre behavior, because even though most Americans view it negatively, it keeps his base happy and thus keeps the investigations at bay-for now.
Photo: cc/Gage Skidmore