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Posts published in “Richardson”

Without fear or favor

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Last week I attended the investiture ceremony of Idaho's newest U.S. attorney, former Idaho Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis. The ceremony, held in the Lincoln Auditorium of the Idaho State Capitol Building, bespoke the peaceful transition of power.

I do not know Bart Davis well, but what I know of him is very positive. He and I may not agree on some matters of public policy, but his reputation for integrity is strong. He strikes me as a thoughtful and considerate person, one who can work constructively with those holding different perspectives and who approaches difficult problems with humility and civility. These attributes will serve him well as he transitions from enacting state laws to enforcing federal laws.

Incredibly, it has been 24 years since I took the same oath of office. Watching Bart Davis’ investiture, I was reminded of Senator Craig's comment when I visited his office during my confirmation proceedings: "Betty, I'd be happier if you were a Republican." "Yes, I understand," I replied, "But if I were a Republican, President Clinton likely wouldn't have nominated me." Craig smiled.

I told Senators Craig and Kempthorne – then Idaho’s members of “the world’s most exclusive club” – that I knew the office required its occupant to leave partisan considerations at the door and promised to do exactly that. Afterward, having received their support, my nomination was unanimously confirmed by the full senate.

Upon taking office, I inherited a staff assembled over the years by my predecessors, both Republicans and Democrats. I found – pretty much without exception – that all of these professionals, attorneys and support staff alike, were committed to the mission of the office.

During my seven year tenure, I had the opportunity to hire many more employees. Merit mattered. Party affiliation did not.

So now, at a time when many people are quick to identify first and foremost with political tribes, it was reassuring to attend an investiture in which the person taking office held a broader view. Among those speaking at Bart Davis' investiture was Wendy Olson, who was appointed U.S. Attorney by Barack Obama. I am pleased to say that I hired her as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and could not be more proud of the able and honorable manner in which she served in the top job. I thought it said a lot about Bart Davis – a Republican – that he asked Wendy Olson, a member of the “other” party, to speak.

At my investiture, I asked one of my Republican predecessors, Guy Hurlbutt, to speak. The message I hoped to send – and one I believe was echoed by Davis’ request of Olson -- was that the office belongs to no party, no president. It belongs to the people of Idaho.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be selected for this opportunity in public service take an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic and to enforce the law without fear or favor. That oath requires that U.S. Attorneys, once invested, do not think in terms of political party but focus solely on applying the facts to the law in each and every case, to strive to secure justice, and to uphold the Constitution.

For many months, I have been deeply troubled by comments made and actions taken by President Trump seemingly intended to politicize the Department of Justice; I will write more about these concerns in the future. For now, though, I add my voice to the chorus of people who applaud the appointment and confirmation of Bart Davis as U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho. I believe he will honor every word of his oath of office and that Idaho will be well-served.
 

Could Utah be the next Alabama?

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85 year old Orrin Hatch has announced he’s not running for an eighth term to the U.S. Senate from Utah. For so many reasons, that’s a good thing.

Hatch has been a Trump sycophant of the first order. Hatch’s lavish praise (describing Trump as “one heck-of-a leader”) and subservient tone (calling Trump “the best president I’ve ever served under”) played to Trump’s well-documented need for incessant adulation. Not surprisingly, Trump publicly and audibly encouraged Hatch to run again.

But Sen. Hatch, whose unfavorable rating in Utah now exceeds his favorable rating read the tea leaves. He had long promised to retire after this term; it was time for him to keep that promise. Hatch’s decision to exit the senate will not sit well with Trump -- not because Trump has any genuine affection for the good senator – but because he can’t stomach the idea of Mitt Romney, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, replacing Hatch. By most accounts, Romney is interested in running for Hatch’s now-open seat and would be the prohibitive favorite if he announces.

Of course, Trump and Romney have had a tumultuous relationship, showcasing both their respective disdain for each other and their mutual willingness to pretend otherwise from time to time. When they occasionally and awkwardly embrace, the moments are wince-worthy. Trump-Romney defines the term “frenemy.”

Back in 2012 when Romney sought Trump’s endorsement for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump demanded Romney meet him for a photo op at a Trump casino to seal the deal. Romney complied. Team Romney draped the room in blue to conceal the garish trappings, but Trump got what he wanted – Romney appeared the supplicant. Trump proceeded to say nice things about Romney, and Romney returned the favor. Then both of them hurried off the stage, eager to put distance between them. Mrs. Romney, who accompanied her husband to the charade, looked like she was going to be ill.

Fast forward four years and Trump became the Republican frontrunner, seeking to succeed where Romney had failed. Romney lambasted Trump noting “[his] personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, [and] the absurd third grade theatrics." Trump, of course, hit back: "You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement [in 2012]. I could have said, 'Mitt, drop to your knees.' He would have dropped to his knees."

Unlike most Republican poohbahs, Romney didn’t capitulate and endorse Trump after Trump secured the GOP nomination. He opted instead to support Evan McMullin, a third-party candidate, sparing little in his criticism of Trump.

Then, after the 2016 election, it was payback time. Trump dangled the Secretary of State position before Romney – and Romney, predictably, grasped. Romney gripped and grinned with the president-elect, engaging in a public courtship of the man he had justifiably condemned weeks earlier. Romney should have known better, but ambition got the better of him. Trump was Lucy with the football and Romney the hapless Charlie Brown. Rex Tillerson got the nod. Trump insiders claim that Trump never intended to offer Romney the job, but wanted to put him through his paces, torture him a bit, have him kiss Trump's ring.

Even now the Romney name grates on Trump. The Washington Post recently reported that, when Trump asked Romney’s niece Ronna Romney McDaniel to head the Republican National Committee, he requested she stop using her middle name in public. I don’t recall that Trump made the same request of Mike Huckabee’s daughter and Trump spin-mistress Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Some might wonder which Mitt Romney would show up in the senate chamber were he to win the office. Would it be the Romney who happily drinks Trump Kool-aid if there’s something in it for him? Or would it be the Romney who pulls no punches and calls Trump out on his odious behavior and utter lack of principles? Given his past willingness to “make up just to break up” with Trump, it’s hard to know the answer.

But the question may be premature. After all, before he can win a general election, Romney must secure the Republican nomination. It’s unlikely another GOP contender could defeat him, but it’s not impossible. Certainly, Donald Trump will look to recruit a strong challenger to Romney, someone in the lapdog mold of Orrin Hatch. And, even though Trump and Steve Bannon seem headed for a permanent split, Bannon and his ideological ilk will also be looking for an alternative.

If there is, in fact, an intramural contest, Romney will likely win; but we’ve seen other instances in which the GOP’s most zealous ideologues capture the flag. Look no further than the recent special election in Alabama where Republicans rejected the ultra-conservative incumbent Luther Strange and nominated the profoundly flawed and even more right-wing Roy Moore. Utah, like Alabama, is a ruby red state and – under ordinary circumstances, a Democrat would have little chance to win there. But it’s possible that a Republican civil war could produce another weak candidate - a Utah version of Roy Moore - for the general election.

The odds may seem very long, but Utah Democrats would be remiss were they not to recruit an exceptionally well-qualified senate candidate. There’s an old saying that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. It’s possible that Utah Republicans will present Utah Democrats with an opportunity. Democrats need to prepare for that eventuality – and they need to do it now.

(photo/Gage Skidmore)
 

Mob boss in the White House

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Every American who has ever pledged "allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands,” should have a shudder running down their spine. At the helm of that republic sits a would-be tyrant who denigrates the rule of law and thinks himself above the law.

In an interview with the New York Times, Donald J. Trump declared: “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.” Claiming to have the power to open, or end, an investigation, Trump referenced the Mueller inquiry saying, “[F]or purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.”

His not so cryptic message is both stark and horrible: “If Mueller does not exonerate me, I can – and I will – shut him down.”

Were Trump to attempt to do this, it would be a manifest obstruction of justice, an offense for which he should be impeached and convicted; but we cannot count on the Republicans in Congress to rise to the occasion.

Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and so many of their GOP colleagues have become Trump’s defenders. They have no objectivity, no sense of shame. As former George W. Bush speech writer David Frum has wisely observed, "This isn’t remotely like Watergate. During Watergate, Congress cared whether laws had been broken."

In the same interview, Trump continued his criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation – a recusal absolutely required by Justice Department protocol. Trump then claimed that former Attorney General Eric Holder protected President Obama and deemed such “protection” praiseworthy.

Trump has no facts to support his conclusion that Holder “protected” Obama and offers no evidence in support of that assertion. What is profoundly troubling, though, is the unmistakable implication that a good attorney general will protect the president who appointed him. The attorney general serves the country and the constitution, not the president. Trump’s view of the ideal attorney general is a “yes man,” a sycophant, a political hack who will reward his patron with “protection.”

We do not have a president, as our founders envisioned a president; we have a mob boss running a criminal syndicate from the Oval Office. In 2018, we must elect a Congress that understands the difference.
 

Heads I win . . .

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If you're familiar with the expression: "Heads I win; tails you lose," you will understand the glee with which the GOP Congress is taking a "victory" lap, patting themselves on their collective backs for cynically passing a self-enriching tax bill at the expense of the middle class.

With precious few exceptions, Republicans who - for years - have been bleating about the escalating national debt, embraced a bill that will, by all objective accounts, increase the debt by upward of $1.4 trillion.

They smile and shake their heads at those of us silly enough to remind them of their previous stance, blithely "explaining" that the corporate tax incentives will enable today's "corporate citizens" to create more and better jobs, resulting in more taxpayers, higher pay for current taxpayers, and hence more revenue that will pay for the cuts.

This explanation would be charming in its simplicity, if it weren't debunked by almost every credible economist who has studied the legislation. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office tells us that, at best, the GOP tax scheme represents "wishful thinking.” This is the modern day iteration of “trickle down,” also known as "Voodoo” economics. At worst, it will imperil our nation’s economy.

But, the GOP assures us, we ought not to worry. If their gambit fails and economic growth doesn't pay for the cuts, they "win" anyway. If the yearly deficit explodes, further expanding the national debt, they will be ready with their scissors. They are ever so eager to cut Social Security and Medicare, ready to shred what most consider our social safety net. They call it "slaying the beast."

As the K Street crowd pops champagne corks, it is a matter of time before 13 million Americans lose health care coverage; trust fund babies reap a windfall, and future generations inherit the wind.

So much "winning" we can hardly stand it.
 

Politics is local

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In the aftermath of the Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate, national Democrats, along with their stable of strategists, pundits, and pollsters, need to wake up and smell the coffee. Labeling a state as “red” or “blue” – winnable or not – based solely on the results of the last presidential election is a narrow, self-defeating perspective. Alabama is a case in point.

Most pundits, eyes firmly fixed on the rearview mirror and focused on the 2016 election, doubted Doug Jones would win. After all, they explained, Trump won the state in 2016 with 62.9% of the vote.

And, they were quick to opine, “Trump remains very popular in Alabama.” Exit polls gave the lie to that opinion.

Indeed, exit polls showed that Trump’s support in Alabama has eroded considerably in just a little over a year. In fact, he is now ever so slightly under water, with only 47% of Alabama voters approving of Trump’s performance in office; 48% disapprove.

In advance of the election, pundits were also quick to obsess about the partisan leanings of Alabama. No doubt it is a red state and tilts decidedly Republican, but here too the exit polls give us pause. Those voting in the special election actually gave the Republican Party lower ratings than they did the Democratic Party – Republicans 43% favorable, 52% unfavorable; Democrats 47% favorable, 50% unfavorable.

The political odds-makers need to move beyond past assumptions. The political climate is dynamic; the electorate is changing, and predicting the outcome of down ballot races by fixating on past presidential returns is simplistic and unwise.

As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." He was right, and Alabama is Exhibit "A."

 

Silver linings

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In the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump threatened not to accept the outcome if he lost. And there is every reason to believe that, had Hillary won, he would have made good on that threat. After all, Russia wanted him to keep stirring the pot.

Undoubtedly, Trump would have continued screaming that the election was “rigged.” He would have escalated his vicious attacks on “corrupt Hillary” and mobilized the “Lock her up!” crowd to dog her every public appearance. His Fox News fanboys and fangirls would have featured his tweets 24-7, and the Breitbart-Hannity echo chamber would have amplified his every utterance – just for starters.

Then, there’s Congress to consider. Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Trey Gowdy, and the rest would have had a field day, ginning up new reasons to investigate Hillary and recycling old ones.

And there is no reason to think that McConnell would have approved a Clinton nominee to the Supreme Court. If the incredibly well-qualified Merrick Garland didn’t pass muster, it’s doubtful anyone would. McConnell wasn’t waiting, as he claimed, for the next president to appoint a new justice. He was waiting for a REPUBLICAN to be elected president. And he would have waited as long as it took. Justice, quite literally, could be damned.

As for those Hillary might have nominated to cabinet and other high-level positions, McConnell and his lieutenants would have subjected them to an unprecedented level of obstruction. And with Republicans also holding the majority in the House, Hillary’s legislative initiatives would have been gutted at every turn.

It would have been gridlock on steroids -- not a pretty picture.

But in an effort to find the silver lining, I offer one significant reason to be hopeful: Trump’s election has allowed us to look into Russia’s attack on our republic to an extent that Hillary’s election would have made much more difficult, if not impossible.

Certainly, in a Hillary Clinton Administration, any DOJ investigation into collusion between Russia and the Trump Team would be seen by many as political retribution against Hillary’s defeated opponent. It’s probable the country would have had little appetite – or patience – for an in-depth Mueller-style probe.
During the campaign, when Trump bellowed he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Hillary’s “lies” and “deception,” many lawyers and legal scholars shuddered. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe told Fortune that “[m]aking threats or vows to use a nation’s criminal justice system against one’s vanquished political opponent is worse than terrible policy: it’s incompatible with the survival of a stable constitutional republic.”

Indeed, precedent for a winning president to seek some sort of criminal action against a recent opponent is not easily found in democracies or republics, but is a defining feature of authoritarian regimes.

Had Hillary won, the GOP Congress and many in the media would have condemned a DOJ investigation into the Trump-Russia connection as a “witch hunt." Never mind that the DOJ would not be acting on Hillary's orders as she adheres to the long-established norm that DOJ must be independent of partisan politics. And never mind that the landscape was scattered with brooms, kettles, and pointy black hats.

But now that Trump sits in the Oval Office, there is every incentive to know whether he and his campaign danced with the devil, whether he – or they – conspired with a foreign foe. We need to find out whether the man who so warmly and inexplicably embraces Putin has, in fact, been compromised.

Russia’s attack on our election was nothing less than an act of war. But our commander in chief has shown no interest whatsoever in learning the truth. Perhaps he already knows the truth; perhaps it incriminates him.

Had Hillary won, we might never know what really happened. But Trump won. And now – God willing – we will.
 

Hypocritical flip flop

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How do you spell “hypocrisy?” I spell it J-i-m-R-i-s-c-h.

For years now, Idaho’s junior U.S. Senator has been preaching that “[t]he overreaching issue is the financial condition of the country.” In a March 12, 2016, column in the Idaho Statesman, Risch lamented that the national debt had risen by about $10 trillion in the preceding ten years.

When our national debt reached $20 trillion, Risch issued a statement bemoaning the fact that “each dollar added to our debt is a dollar lost from critical investments in American roads, bridges, healthcare, schools, and other essential services.”

Of course, it’s not like Risch has a record of supporting investment in critical infrastructure and other essential services, but it’s a nice thought.

Now the Senate is poised to vote on a so-called tax reform plan that most major economists doubt will grow the economy, as its supporters promise. Moreover, the non-partisan Tax Policy center has found that the tax cuts will not pay for themselves through growth. Instead of being revenue neutral, the cuts, once implemented, will likely result in a massive revenue loss.

Pouring salt in the wound, the Senate Finance Committee has announced that its plan will include a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate that would likely leave 13 million Americans uninsured. And now the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate GOP's tax plan would increase the deficit by $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years.

So who will reap the largesse of this slipshod scheme? Why those who need it least – the mega corporations and the ultra-rich, people like Jim Risch who boasts about being one of the wealthiest U.S. Senators. Just how much would this plan boost his bottom line? I’m betting he’ll see quiet a windfall.

Some deficit hawks, like Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have the courage of their convictions and don’t try to sugarcoat things. Flake recently released a statement expressing concern that "the current tax reform proposals will grow the already staggering national debt,” and cautioning that, were it to do so, our economy would be threatened. But unlike Flake, Risch appears ready – if not eager – to abandon his long-touted concerns about the debt in order to help Trump notch a “win.”

The Greek philosopher Diogenes is said to have carried a lamp everywhere in search of “one honest man.” He could have found that honest man in South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham who candidly admitted that the Republican obsession with tax cuts for the uber-rich comes down to keeping the GOP in power by ensuring that the donor spigot keeps flowing. There’s not much in the way of principle in that remark, but at least it’s honest.

Dishonest Jim Risch has for years portrayed himself as some kind of fiscal champion but his concern for the national debt has proven short-lived. Sadly, he has shown himself to be a hypocrite of the first order, and an embarrassment to the state of Idaho.
 

Projecting in South Korea

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When President Trump delivered his remarks in South Korea, I was struck by how many times he accused North Korea's Kim Jong Un of traits and conduct that characterize his own administration and its enablers. Psychologists call this projection – the attribution of qualities to others that apply to, but one denies in, oneself.

For instance, he bellowed, "The regime fears the truth above all else . . . ." This is from the man who sent CIA Director Mike Pompeio to meet with a debunked conspiracy theorist and who lies with impunity at every turn. Lest you think I exaggerate, as of Oct. 9, 2017, fact checkers at the Washington Post had tallied more than 1,300 Trump lies and misleading claims – just since the inauguration – or about 5 a day.

Then Trump shouted: "In place of a vibrant society, the people . . . are bombarded by state propaganda practically every waking hour of the day." Again, this is from the man who daily sends out the shameless Sarah Huckabee Sanders to spin her web of deceit and duplicity before the White House press corps. He calls out credible reporters by name as “totally dishonest,” “disgusting,” “corrupt,” and “scum," and the media collectively – other than his fawning sycophants at Fox News – as “the enemy of the American people.”

Next, he claimed that North Korea is little more than a "cult" at whose center "is a deranged belief in the leader’s destiny to rule as parent protector." Remember Trump's brag at the Republican National Convention: "Only I can fix it!" And his recent assertion, "I am the only one that matters." And, of course, there's his chilling and pathetic boast "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." All this sounds pretty cultish to me.

Then Trump complained that the North Korean regime has broken international commitments. We need look no further than Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Trans Pacific Partnership to see that he models the same behavior. And, of course, he has threatened to walk away from NAFTA, if our partners in this hemisphere don't accede to his demands. For a time, it looked like he might even walk away from NATO.

Finally – and perhaps most telling – he slammed the regime for seeking conflict abroad to distract from "total failure that they suffer at home." Yup, we can check that box too. In fact, that's exactly what he was doing in his speech in South Korea.

They say it takes one to know one. I couldn't help but think, as I listened to Trump's list of grievances against Kim Jong Un, that - in so very many respects - he was describing himself as well.
 

No laughing matter

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Last week, President Trump shamed himself by denigrating the U.S. justice system, calling it a "joke" and a "laughing stock." Playing the part of the tin horn dictator, Trump bellowed that our nation needs "quick justice and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now."

This broadside on our nation’s criminal justice system reflects appalling ignorance.

Enamored as he is with so-called "strong men,” Trump seems willing -- if not eager -- to trample over the venerable concept of due process of law. You want "quick and strong" Mr. President? Look no further than the world's tyrants who send their henchmen -- often in the dead of night -- to capture, kidnap and kill "suspects.” They leave no trace of justice.

I've been part of the U.S. criminal justice system, and I've worked day in and day out with federal prosecutors and federal defenders, with federal agents and federal courts, and with the many other dedicated individuals who routinely put in extremely long hours, occasionally risking their lives, to ensure that our system of justice, though far from perfect, remains -- for the most part -- thorough, fair, and just.

I wish every citizen could see, as I have seen, the professionalism and dedication of those individuals. From victim witness coordinators to probation officers to federal mediators and Article III judges, it would be hard to find people more committed to the promise of our pledge of allegiance -- that ours is a nation "with liberty and justice for all." That phrase, well-known to every school child, may be aspirational, but it speaks to a noble aspiration, one deeply embedded in our national DNA.

When I served as U.S. Attorney for Idaho, a delegation of Russian justice officials visited Boise, ostensibly to learn about our criminal justice system. Over lunch, I asked the group leader what protections his country had in place to ensure that people accused of crimes were afforded due process. He gave me a dismissive look and precluded further questions with a summary statement: "You have your system; we have our system. Let's eat."

Yes, they have their system, and it is most assuredly “quick and strong.” But speed and strength do not guarantee justice. The Russian system, often violent and corrupt to the core, is one in which those close to power are free to do as they please and those out of favor are summarily condemned. This is not a system we should want to emulate.

During his tenure as president, Mr. Trump has repeatedly vilified our federal judiciary, undercut the rule of law, disregarded governing norms, undermined the independence of the Department of Justice, and attacked the institutions that give life to the guarantees enshrined in our Constitution. Sadly, we see that it is our president who is the laughing stock. And that is no laughing matter.

Critical but insufficient

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Like many, I am pleased to learn that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed initial charges in his investigation. Mueller’s assignment is broad, and it is likely that the indictments announced today are the first of many, though we may not learn of others for some time. Given his long history of exemplary conduct, both as a former U.S. Attorney and past director of the FBI, I have great confidence that Mueller will proceed apace, cutting square corners, and doing his job efficiently and with absolute integrity.

That said I have two notes of caution.

The first pertains to the seemingly complete absorption of the national media and social media with the filing of charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. While these indictments certainly warrant the “Breaking News!” treatment, they should not distract our focus from other major stories - for instance the GOP's insistence on fast-tracking an irresponsible tax plan that would blow up the deficit, balloon the national debt, and shred our fragile safety net. We cannot succumb to the temptation to discuss only the newest, shiniest object in the room.

The second note of caution pertains to what we can – and cannot – hope to achieve through the criminal justice process. Mueller's efforts cannot address all of the problems relating to Russia's interference with our election. While his investigation is absolutely necessary, he is constrained to address only past criminal activity. Our nation must continue to look to Congress to reveal all wrongdoing and to ensure that it never happens again.

The Senate Committees on Judiciary and Intelligence must continue, and complete, their oversight investigations. They cannot use the initial indictments - and the many more that will likely come - to delay or distract them from their own responsibilities.

The House Intelligence Committee has seemed dysfunctional from the outset, but it too has a role to play – if only it can rise to the occasion.

In short, Mueller's investigation is essential, but it is not, in itself, sufficient to the moment. Congress has a great deal more investigative work to do, and we must insist it do it.