A majority of voters say that what Donald Trump refers to as “the Russia thing” is “making them nervous about the future of the country,” according to a Morning Consult/Politico survey released last week. But at present, no credible, independent investigation is being conducted into what US intelligence agencies described as a “multi-faceted” Russian “influence campaign” to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton last year that blended “covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’” Whatever one thinks of those conclusions, there’s no question that multiple senior figures in Trump’s inner circle attempted to conceal over a dozen covert contacts with Russian officials and individuals with close ties to the Kremlin. The public has a pressing need to get to the bottom of this. Only a transparent, comprehensive, and nonpartisan probe can restore some confidence in our electoral system.
Former FBI director Robert Mueller, the special counsel tasked to look into any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, has a reputation as a thorough investigator. But his mandate is to look at criminal activity. As David Frum noted at The Atlantic, “a prosecutor investigating a crime can often discover non-criminal bad actions by the people he is investigating. If those bad actions do not amount to crimes, the prosecutor is supposed to look away.” So while Mueller may well uncover a criminal conspiracy, his investigation is unlikely to shine any light on the broader influence campaign. Just as an example, Senator Mark Warner claimed that the Kremlin employed over 1,000 people to churn out damning fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and spread them across social media in key states, which undermines public trust but on its face wouldn’t appear to violate any laws. And his probe may take years to complete.
The House and Senate investigations have reportedly ramped up in the wake of Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, but they’re run by the same Republicans who have repeatedly blocked efforts to get Trump’s tax returns. Representative Devin Nunes, who recused himself after trying to run interference on behalf of the White House, still holds his committee’s subpoena power. In late April, Tim Mak reported for The Daily Beast that, three months after its launch, the Senate investigation did “not have a single staffer dedicated to it full-time, and those staff members working on it part-time [did] not have significant investigative experience.” When James Comey tried to talk to the committee about Russia earlier this month, Republican senators grilled him about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server. These investigations may eventually yield results, but they’re unlikely to give the public a rigorous and complete accounting of what happened in 2016 in the foreseeable future.