This might be bigger than Watergate. Late Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that U.S. spy agencies had intercepted multiple phone conversations between associates of President Donald Trump and Russian intelligence agents. That means Trump allies may have colluded with a foreign power in an effort to undermine the American democratic process — and that Russia may now have access to the highest levels of American government.
That seems like the kind of thing that people might have some questions about! And yet the House and Senate Republican majorities have been reticent to back a major investigation into possible links between Trump and Moscow, even following the recent departure of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn under a crowd of suspicion.
But lest anyone think GOP lawmakers are dragging their heels, it’s important to note they’ve offered up some good reasons for their desultory approach. Here are some of the best ones.
1. There’s already an ongoing investigation, so a new one would be redundant.
That’s a favorite excuse of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who have now spent months deflecting calls for an independent commission by gesturing at existing committees and U.S. intelligence agencies.
As early as two months ago, Ryan was saying that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) “has my support” to look into allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. McConnell has similarly backed an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee. But both of these bodies are chaired by Republican Trump loyalists; Nunes himself was a member of the Trump transition team.
Yet Ryan and McConnell have held the line. This week, Ryan said he would not “prejudge” the circumstances around Flynn’s departure and noted that “the intelligence committee’s been looking into this all along.”
Echoing Ryan, McConnell said: “The Intelligence Committee is already looking at Russian involvement in our election. They can look into whatever they choose to.”
2. Executive privilege means we can’t get the information we’d need.
Speaking of Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee leader said Tuesday that he would not examine conversations between Flynn and the president because of executive privilege.
Rep. Devin Nunes says the Intelligence Committee won't look into discussions between Trump and Flynn, citing executive privilege
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) February 14, 2017
Executive privilege allows the White House to withhold some information about internal communications, even in the face of congressional subpoenas. But it doesn’t preemptively restrain committees from asking about those communications in the first place.
3. Flynn resigned, so the whole thing took care of itself.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) told reporters Tuesday the fact of Flynn’s resignation meant there was no point in scrutinizing the events leading up to it.
“It’s taking care of itself,” he said.
Rep Jason Chaffetz R-UT tells reporters there's no need to further probe Flynn. "It’s taking care of itself"
— Jamie Dupree (@jamiedupree) February 14, 2017
Of course, that’s not quite true, as the latest round of intelligence leaks attest. Even with Flynn out of the administration, there are a lot of lingering questions regarding his conversation with a Russian diplomat, his activities as a member of the National Security Council, and the possible involvement of other administration officials in both.
4. We’re too busy trying to repeal Obamacare.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) thinks a full investigation would get in the way of all the other important work that Congress needs to do — such as cutting people’s health insurance.
“I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party,” said Paul. “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do like repealing Obamacare if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense.”
One might reasonably object that there’s no reason why Congress can’t investigate the White House and repeal Obamacare simultaneously. But Paul is right to worry; repeal now seems to be in serious jeopardy, as Republicans are unable to settle on a replacement plan.