If you want to understand how ill-prepared we are for a national debate over these allegations, look at Rep. Trey Gowdy's performance during the hearing.
Gowdy was, in the last Congress, the chair of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, the ninth investigation into the 2012 attack on a US diplomatic mission in Libya. His committee spent two years and millions of dollars investigating allegations that the Obama administration or Hillary Clinton personally covered up the truth about what happened in Benghazi — and, like all eight prior investigations, found no evidence to substantiate these claims.
So you'd expect Gowdy, advocate for truth and transparency that he is, to vigorously question Comey about Trump's leaks to Russia. Instead, Gowdy spent a substantial amount of time naming former Obama administration officials — national security adviser Susan Rice, top aide Ben Rhodes, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch — and asking if they would have access to the identity of Trump associates whom the US intelligence community had identified as having spoken to Russians.
Essentially, he's suggesting the Obama team illegally leaked classified information in an effort to gin up a controversy about Trump.
"[By making] thinly veiled allegations against these former Obama administration officials by name … a member of Congress is intimating that particular Americans may have committed serious crimes," a group of experts at the national security blog Lawfare write.
This is an allegation that you've seen, without any real substantiation, in some of the more unserious corners of the conservative press. Gowdy, by forcing Comey to admit that these people could have had access to relevant information, was seemingly intentionally fueling a conspiracy theory.
The Trump administration immediately jumped on this theory. Press Secretary Sean Spicer highlighted it in his afternoon briefing to reporters.
"Director Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that certain political appointees in the Obama administration had access to the names of unmasked US citizens, such as senior White House officials, senior Department of Justice officials, and senior intelligence officials," Spicer said. "Before President Obama left office, Michael Flynn was unmasked and then illegally his identity was leaked out to media."
Gowdy's line of questioning illustrates the way that most Republicans are handling this Russia probe: Treating it not as an issue of major importance for the American public, but rather an issue of loyalty to their president. The other Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee spent most of their time casting doubt on the idea that Russia would have wanted Trump to be president and lambasting leakers.
In a normal hearing, it would not be particularly troubling to hear Republicans playing defense for a Republican president. But this isn't a normal hearing. This was convened to discuss what are, best case, demonstrated lies from the president's team about its contact with a hostile power. Worst case, it's an investigation into a political crisis without precedent in US history.
Yet in a political environment so defined by polarization, it's hard for Republican legislators to think outside of partisan boxes. That's how they approached the Benghazi investigation, when they were in the opposition and thus had an incentive to look for scandal; it's how the party is approaching the Trump-Russia investigation now, when they're in government and thus have an interest in turning a blind eye.
This is a very serious problem. The New York Times reports that FBI counterintelligence investigations can take years and don't often lead to criminal charges. A congressional investigation in which Republican lawmakers subpoena Trump officials and force them to testify under oath would be a vital way of providing the public with information about these extremely serious allegations.
But Republicans, judging by Monday's performance, seem to have no interest in providing this kind of oversight. Since they're in the majority, they control whether or not there's an official congressional investigation — and thus whether or not Trump officials will be forced to testify under oath. Partisanship may well be destroying our ability to get to the bottom of an issue of vital national concern.
Monday's hearing was stunning in more ways than one.
Commentary by Zack Beauchamp, world correspondent at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @zackbeauchamp.
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