You don’t have to be a strategic genius to figure out what Democrats want in the wake of James Comey’s firing: some sort of independent inquiry of the underlying allegations of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections and possible collusion with the Trump campaign that the president may have been trying to stop. Such an inquiry would now naturally extend to the administration’s possible obstruction of justice in seeking to curb the FBI from going there.
The trouble is, of course, that the two obvious avenues to this independent inquiry are a special counsel appointed by the attorney general, which the administration is obviously not inclined to set up to pursue this “fake” story about Russia, or a special committee or commission set up by Congress, to which Mitch McConnell has already said a stern “nyet.”
So congressional Democrats are examining their options for securing some leverage to promote this objective, and the obvious approach is to hold the confirmation of Comey’s successor hostage.
According to a McLatchy report, Senate Democrats are eyeing their Republican colleagues carefully to figure out if three might be lured or pressured into joining the hostage-taking party. One might be the ever-rebellious John McCain, who just this week supported Democrats in stopping an effort to gut Obama administration regulations opposed by powerful fossil-fuel interests. McCain has publicly called for a special congressional committee to look into the Russia issue, modeled on the Reagan-era committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal.
Other likely targets are the two Republican senators expected to face a difficult reelection challenge in 2018, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Susan Colllins is another independent-minded Republican, but she is also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that McConnell thinks should have sole jurisdiction over the investigation.
There could be some strategic differences of opinion among Senate Democrats about which hostage to take: Senator Richard Blumenthal is talking about holding up FY 2018 appropriations for the Justice Department in hopes of pressuring DOJ to use its power to appoint a special counsel. That approach has the advantage of carrying the threat of a Democratic filibuster, which is no longer available in disputes over confirmations. But what could really give the fight for an independent inquiry a boost would be a strong public-opinion reaction to the Comey firing — or perhaps more self-destructive words from a president who cannot seem to stop talking or tweeting.
The bigger question, of course, is whether congressional Republicans treat this whole brouhaha as just another partisan food fight, or as a potential threat to the rule of law that requires some independence from the administration. As veteran journalist James Fallows notes in an authoritative piece on parallels between the present saga and Watergate (which he covered):
The Republicans of the Watergate era stuck with Richard Nixon as long as they could, but they acted all along as if larger principles were at stake.
We’ll see if today’s Republicans can manage that broader perspective.