Democrats have seized on law enforcement conclusions that Russia interfered in the presidential election to press for a select committee investigation into Moscow’s meddling.
While Democrats have been careful to cast calls for the probe as nonpartisan and focused on national security, the effort could also divert attention from President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE’s agenda while raising questions about the election’s integrity.
Trump has described as “ridiculous” an assessment by the CIA concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed cyberattacks to help him defeat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE by selectively releasing hacked documents that embarrassed the Democrat’s campaign.
The Trump team has made it clear they view calls for a select committee investigation as an effort to delegitimize the Republican’s win — and as evidence of sour grapes on the part of Democrats.
Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerFixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates Beware the tea party of the left Bottom line MORE (N.Y.) has scrupulously avoided the appearance of partisanship as he has sought to pick up GOP support for a select panel. He won a victory Sunday when GOP Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics' Meghan McCain blames 'toxic' hostility for 'The View' exit MORE (Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (S.C.) joined his call.
Outside observers say it’s clear the effort could pay political dividends for Democrats who are otherwise struggling for leverage.
“It’s to underscore the singular relationship that Trump has with Putin and to raise a question of whether this is proper. Does Putin have the best interests of the United States at heart?” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Baker recently served as scholar in residence in the office of retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid calls on Democrats to plow forward on immigration Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt MORE (Nev.).
Baker said Democrats have concerns whether the issue of Russia’s influence would receive as diligent review if investigated primarily by the Senate Intelligence Committee — an option that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP blocks Senate Democrats' revised elections bill A politicized Supreme Court? That was the point The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Democrats optimistic after Biden meetings MORE (R-Ky.) prefers — instead of a select committee or independent commission.
But he adds that a select committee investigation, which would command more attention and resources than a regular panel probe, would likely have the ancillary benefit — to Democrats — of slowing Trump’s agenda in the first year.
“It certainly would sidetrack it, create a kind of diversion, divert the energies of the Trump agenda as the Democrats see it,” Baker added. “The bigger the spectacle, the more likely it is to distract Trump from the things he promised to do.”
The push is also likely to be popular with a Democratic base stung by Clinton’s surprise loss.
“They’re bitter and angry and would like to take Trump down a peg,” said Al Felzenberg, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the former spokesman for the 9/11 Commission.
Schumer does not want calls for a select panel to be seen as partisan and has been cautious in his handling of the controversy.
While other Democrats such as Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) were quick to call for a select committee or special commission, Schumer held back. He only asked that the investigation be bipartisan, deep, given access to all the relevant details and for its findings to be made public.
The patient approach paid off over the weekend when McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Graham sent a letter to McConnell urging him to create a select committee.
McCain’s support is especially crucial because he played a pivotal role in pushing the administration of George W. Bush to agree to an independent commission after the 9/11 attacks.
Schumer, McCain and Graham argued their case to McConnell on narrow procedural grounds, noting that the breadth of the probe extended well beyond the jurisdiction of the Intelligence panel, which is chaired by Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrDemocratic incumbents bolster fundraising advantage in key Senate races McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (R-N.C.), one of McConnell’s close allies.
“Cyber is the rare kind of all-encompassing challenge for which the Congress’s jurisdictional boundaries are an impediment to sufficient oversight and legislative action,” they wrote.
McCain and Graham, longtime rivals, were frequent critics of Trump during the presidential campaign.
A senior Democratic aide argued Monday that far from derailing Trump’s agenda for 2017, a select committee would save other committees from getting tied up into a complex review of Russian hacking and the nation’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
“What would slow down the Trump agenda would be if all the different committees were looking at different pieces of the puzzle,” the aide said. “This is about future elections. No Democrat is trying to overturn the results of this election. Both parties should be united in being concerned.”
Schumer has not signed on to the bigger ask of creating an independent commission akin to the 9/11 panel, something Pelosi has endorsed. That proposal, authored by Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings (Md.) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.), would create a special 12-member commission selected by Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress.
One Democratic aide, however, noted that Schumer’s careful effort to woo McCain and Graham over to his side is an example of the classic political strategy of divide and conquer.
“Schumer loves finding wedge issues,” the aide observed.
Other Democrats argue partisanship has nothing to do with their demands. They know that even a whiff of ulterior political motives will scare away Republican participation and undermine the investigation’s legitimacy.
“It shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and former senior Senate aide. “A foreign entity that is not very friendly with us interfered in our election. Getting to the bottom of that an ensuring that it can’t happen again is important."
“Regardless of who is in the majority and who is in the minority in the Senate, [both sides] should be on equal footing,” he said, making an argument for a select committee.