White House and GOP Allies Try to Block Russia Probe, Like 9/11 Commission
When it comes to defending their party against scandals, no one gets in line like Republicans. That's why it's no surprise that GOP leaders in Congress are doing their best to head off any independent probe into President Trump's rapidly propagating Putin problems. Last week, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called allegation of Team Trump contacts with Russian officials "complete garbage," a claim he said he was authorized to make "by the top levels of the intelligence community." Meanwhile, White House press secretary Sean Spicer deployed House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) to make the case that "there's nothing there." It's wonder that former CIA and Pentagon spokesman George Little warned:
"It's doubtful that Congress can conduct an objective and independent investigation into ties between this White House and the Russian government if it is collaborating so closely on media pushback with the White House press secretary."
If these developments seem hauntingly familiar, they should. After all, after the U.S. suffered a devastating attack on September 11, 2001 from a much less dangerous adversary than Russia, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and the GOP's best and brightest in Congress rejected the call for an independent commission to examine the security disaster that killed 3,000 people on American soil.
Fifteen years ago, the Bush administration had its own answer for Sean Spicer's rhetorical question on Monday, "You've got to ask yourself, what are you investigating?"
In May 2002, Republicans circled the wagons around President Bush after revelations that the administration had been warned about possible Al Qaeda plans to hijack an aircraft. But when Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle asked "Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" and called for a blue-ribbon commission to investigate, the GOP's top brass railed to Bush's defense. Daschle's Republican counterpart Trent Lott denounced the demands for an inquiry:
"I really think there's nothing more despicable ... for someone to insinuate that the president of the United States knew there was an attack on our country that was imminent and didn't do anything about it. For us to be talking like our enemy, George W. Bush instead of Osama bin Laden, that's not right."
Lott's colleague Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) agreed:
"I don't think that anyone should start pointing fingers in a personal way or suggest that people are trying to cover their political backsides. I just think that's ridiculous. I think we need to go forward. We need to be positive. There are failures. We need to get to the root of it and try to make our country more secure."
Vice President Dick Cheney and the soon-to-be disgraced Tom DeLay took a different tactic, claiming an investigation into the catastrophe of 9/11 would itself hinder the war against Al Qaeda. As DeLay groused:
"A public commission investigating American intelligence in a time of war is ill conceived and, frankly, irresponsible. We need to address America's challenges in intelligence gathering and terrorist prevention. But we don't need to hand the terrorists an after-action report."
Cheney, meanwhile, suggested that trying to find out what President Bush knew and when he knew it would provide aid and comfort to the enemy:
"An investigation must not interfere with the ongoing efforts to prevent the next attack, because without a doubt a very real threat of another perhaps more devastating attack still exists. The people and agencies responsible for helping us learn about and defeat such an attack are the very ones most likely to be distracted from their critical duties if Congress fails to carry out their obligations in a responsible fashion."
For his part, President Bush echoed that assessment. As CBS reported on May 23, 2002:
President Bush took a few minutes during his trip to Europe Thursday to voice his opposition to establishing a special commission to probe how the government dealt with terror warnings before Sept. 11.
Mr. Bush said the matter should be dealt with by congressional intelligence committees.
CBS News Correspondent Bill Plante reports that Mr. Bush said the investigation should be confined to Congress because it deals with sensitive information that could reveal sources and methods of intelligence. Therefore, he said, the congressional investigation is "the best place" to probe the events leading up to the terrorist attacks.
"I have great confidence in our FBI and CIA," the President said in Berlin, adding that he feels the agencies are already improving their information sharing practices.
Bush's reticence wasn't surprising, given the continuing revelations about the repeated warnings he received about Al Qaeda throughout the spring and summer of 2001. Ultimately, President Bush yielded to mounting public pressure and agreed to support the 9/11 Commission under the aegis of Henry Kissinger. (Unwilling to reveal his financial interests, Kissinger withdrew.) But as for his own participation, Bush agreed to testify, but only on the conditions that he be questioned behind closed doors jointly with Vice President Cheney and neither man would be under oath. As President Bush explained his White House meeting with the 9/11 commissioners on April 29, 2004:
"If we had something to hide, we wouldn't have met with them in the first place. I came away good about the session, because I wanted them to know, you know, how I set strategy, how we run the White House, how we deal with threats.
The vice president answered a lot of their questions, answered all their questions. And I think it was important for them to see our body language as well, how we work together."
Of course, that was then and this is now. In the intervening years, no fewer than 9 investigations were conducted into the September 11, 2012 tragedy at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. In each, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was cleared of wrong-doing. But now, President Donald Trump faces not one but four scandals involving Vladimir Putin's Russia--potential Trump collusion with Moscow against the Hillary Clinton campaign, possible Trump lies about Michael Flynn's outreach to the Putin government, purported kompromat Russian intelligence may be holding over the American president and the conflicts of interest created by the Trump Organization's extensive business ties to Putin's kleptocratic petro-state. Nevertheless, Chairman Nunes has already declared the case closed:
"They've looked, and it's all a dead trail that leads me to believe no contact, not even pizza-delivery-guy contact."
For his part, President Trump on Monday rejected the need for a special prosecutor or independent commission, promising reporters that "I haven't called Russia in 10 years." Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who repeatedly called the Benghazi killings "disqualifying" for candidate Hillary Clinton, denounced the expanding concerns over Russian influence "hysteria." Meanwhile, Sean Spicer pooh-poohed the call for a special prosecutor:
"A special prosecutor for what?"
"We have now for six months heard story after story about unnamed sources saying the same thing over and over again. And nothing's come of it."
Unfortunately for him and his boss, the American people feel differently. By two-to-one margins, Americans believe Congress should investigate both Team Trump's connections to the Russia and the Putin government's role in the 2016 presidential election. But that poll was taken before the revelations that the Trump White House had coordinated with Congressional Republicans on "knocking down" allegations against the President. Which means that Donald Trump like George W. Bush before him will still have to face the public--and the music.