Controversies involving President Trump’s campaign, his administration, and Russia just keep popping up — including the scandal that led to the downfall of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned last week after leaks made clear that he’d lied about his conversation with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
Meanwhile, a New York Times report showed that Trump campaign officials had repeated contact with Russian intelligence operatives throughout the 2016 campaign — a charge White House spokesperson Sean Spicer had denied just hours earlier. And Trump continues to rally against leaks without fully addressing the allegations.
On this episode of The Weeds, Vox’s Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, and Sarah Kliff discuss Trump’s various Russia scandals and how they’re getting in the way of progress on Trump’s policy goals. Matt explains the history behind executive branch investigations, and Ezra and Sarah theorize on what’s likely to happen without an independent prosecutor. (You can listen to The Weeds at the link below or — better yet — subscribe to The Weeds on iTunes.)
Here’s Matt on the history of independent council investigations:
It’s also worth — well, ’cause this is The Weeds — talking about the history of the legal framework in which investigations happen. So after Watergate, after Richard Nixon’s resignation, particularly after the 1974 midterms, you have these incredibly large Democratic Party majorities in Congress; this very weakened President Gerald Ford, who was unusual because he had never even run for vice president. So just a series of scandals had elevated Ford; big new Democratic majority, low level of ideological polarization, scandal on the front burner.
So they created this new framework: the independent counsel framework, in which the attorney general could be asked to appoint an independent counsel who would have separate funding, operate outside of the Justice Department chain of command, and could investigate executive branch scandals. So that was set up under Ford, it was used under Carter in I think a relatively minor way to look at the question of whether some White House officials had been involved in using cocaine or something like that.
But then it was in the Reagan administration that it got its first real field test as a part of the Iran-Contra scandal. And there was an independent prosecutor for that, a big investigation, an investigation that ended with a number of senior officials being convicted but not of underlying wrongdoing — they were all convicted of sort of cover-up-type things: lying to investigators, obstruction of justice, that kind of thing. The independent counsel had clearly hoped to get them to flip on Reagan himself. ... That didn’t happen.
George H.W. Bush was elected president. He pardoned the high-level offenders. And you end with a deadlock where Democrats felt that the pardons and a cover-up had sort of let Reagan get away with it. And Republicans felt that what happened was the independent prosecutor sort of went off his leash and, having investigated the underlying crime, started just trying to jam up senior officials, right?
Then Bill Clinton is president. There’s a question about an old land deal that happened when he was governor of Arkansas — Whitewater. An independent prosecutor is appointed for that, and the independent prosecutor again investigates the land deal. Nobody is convicted of that. But in the course of asking questions of Arkansas politicians, you get some people on obstruction, false statements to investigators, and the investigation just keeps rolling, and it becomes an investigation about whatever. And it becomes an investigation into whether Bill Clinton made false statements in a deposition at the Paula Jones lawsuit. And Bill Clinton winds up being impeached over this.
So then the authorization for this independent counsel expires early in the George W. Bush administration, and both parties sort of feel like they’ve been burned by these open-ended investigations and were going to close the door on it. So we don’t have that mechanism anymore. So we’re back to the pre-Watergate-era mechanism in which you are relying on either the attorney general, who wants to preserve his own independent reputation and says, “Okay, I’m going to step aside and let so-and-so run this,” or on Congress to say, “We’re going to stand up and we’re going to investigate this.”
- “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence,” from the New York Times
- How to keep track of Trump’s Russia scandals, by Vox’s Zack Beauchamp
- The story behind Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and why Flynn resigned
- What Republicans in the House and Senate will and won’t do to investigate these allegations
- Matt Yglesias on how Trump is seemingly busy but is actually getting very little done