As a former Watergate prosecutor, I’ll be the first to agree that over the years many pseudo-scandals have had the term “gate” affixed by journalists — eager for a big story or to stimulate circulation or viewership. The imbroglio bringing President Donald Trump’s White House to swords’ points with the news media — which he’s labeled “the enemy of the American people” — is not one of them.
The conclusion by the nation’s intelligence agencies that a hostile foreign power hacked into the Democratic National Committee, as well as the email accounts of senior campaign officials, and then leaked the contents to WikiLeaks to influence the outcome of the 2016 election makes it clear that this is no pseudo-scandal.
President Barack Obama properly leveled sanctions against Russian adversaries as an initial and measured response. Still, a serious question looms: Was there encouragement of or collusion with Russia’s effort by the Trump campaign, the beneficiary of this criminal assault on our electoral process?
Only a full and credible investigation of the extent of Kremlin activities — including contacts with candidate Trump’s representatives and surrogates — will satisfy the public’s right to know and the need to determine whether criminal charges should be brought.
Remember, Watergate was initially described by President Richard Nixon’s White House as “a third-rate burglary” of the DNC by rogue actors unconnected to his campaign. The facts were uncovered by investigative reporting led by the same news organizations branded by Trump as enemies of the people, then by an investigation by a Senate select committee, then by the Watergate special prosecutor, and finally by the Supreme Court, which upheld the prosecution’s right to demand Nixon’s incriminating tape recordings. In doing so, the court restated the fundamental proposition that no man is above the law.
That Trump is scornful of basic notions of transparency is unsurprising, given his success in the primaries and general election without releasing his tax returns, a de facto prerequisite for presidential candidates in modern times. He praised retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, who reportedly lied to the FBI and misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has agreed to recuse himself from any investigation of Russian interference in the election. And all the while, Trump blames the news media — not his appointees’ failures of candor — for the disruption of his fledgling administration.
The public deserves a credible and complete investigation. Republicans must put patriotism above party conformity and join Democrats to supplement the work undertaken by the Senate and House intelligence committees by creating a select committee. That would allow for a bipartisan investigation with sufficient scope and subpoena power. Open hearings and witnesses questioned under oath would give the public the necessary assurance that no cover-up is ongoing.
With Sessions’ recusal, the deputy attorney general needs to consider appointing a special counsel who is independent and has the authority and subpoena power to obtain evidence and compel testimony. To avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest, the special counsel — not the Justice Department — should investigate and prosecute any indictments to assure the public of impartiality.
The press is not the enemy. That is reserved for closed, authoritarian societies the likes of which we have successfully challenged, including by armed combat. While it will on occasion make mistakes and get things wrong, a free and open press is the bedrock of our democracy.
Richard Ben-Veniste is an attorney in Washington. He was chief of the Watergate Task Force of the Special Prosecutor’s Office and was a member of the 9/11 Commission.