The Department of Justice has done the right thing in appointing Robert Mueller III to serve as a special prosecutor to lead its inquiry into allegations of Russian interference in the presidential election. However, supporters of President Donald Trump will certainly seek to turn it into an excuse to bring the pace of the House Intelligence inquiry down to a crawl. They may even argue for slowing down the Senate Intelligence inquiry, which has tried to be bipartisan. These efforts should be rejected.
The argument from the Trump loyalists will proceed along many lines. The special prosecutor’s inquiry is the best one, they will say, because Mueller is nonpartisan and has fine credentials. He needs time to come up to speed. Mueller may very well himself say that uncoordinated congressional investigations could get in his way.
Moreover, congressional investigations, it will be argued, undermine any prosecutorial effort. Document custodians are slowed down by multiple demands. Witnesses may be locked into unhelpful multiple statements when questioned several times. Public hearings would taint potential jurors.
These arguments seem inevitable and familiar – yet bogus. Washington has a strong history of simultaneous – and well-coordinated — investigations by special prosecutors and congressional committees. During Watergate, special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski worked at the same time as the Senate Watergate Committee.
In the case of the Iran-Contra affair, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh worked at the same time as the House and Senate Iran-Contra Committees. I speak from personal knowledge: I was Special Deputy Chief Counsel of the House Iran-Contra Committee and saw up close how well the investigations coordinated. During most of the Bill Clinton administration, there were numerous congressional investigations. And, at the same time, Ken Starr was working as special prosecutor. Coordinating congressional investigations into the Trump scandal is simply a matter of careful lawyering, as in these past instances.
What is the need for congressional inquiries? First and foremost, the public, the press, and Congress may not learn much for many months to come from Mueller’s inquiry. The special prosecutor works in private, slowly, and with a closed-door grand jury. If delving into former FBI Director James Comey’s conversations with President Trump were left to the special prosecutor, it might easily be 2018 – if ever – before the public would learn the details.
Only congressional hearings can satisfy the need to know of the public, the press and Congress. When I was on the Iran-Contra committee staff, the committee showed the key knowledgeable individuals in hearings live on television. The press followed in the committee’s wake, translating elusive lines of testimony and complicated documents into clear language.
The Senate Watergate Committee is most famous for preparing the way for President Nixon’s impeachment. It is sometimes forgotten that the Watergate Committee studied the need, and built the case, for the campaign finance law that was subsequently passed. There may well be important legislation that should be considered coming out of the 2016 election scandal. Consideration of such legislation should precede, not follow, the next national election in 2018. Congress must learn the lessons in time to act on them in months to come. That is neither Mueller’s job nor his timetable.