Congressional Republicans spent years investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails and launched a special committee to get to the bottom of the Benghazi attacks.
But when it comes to alleged Russian interference in the presidential election, the GOP appears to be taking a more restrained approach.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are rejecting growing calls for a wide-ranging special congressional panel to investigate the issue, instead pointing to the narrower oversight work already being performed by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
This approach offers no guarantee that final investigative reports will ever be released to the public — and potentially shields President-elect Donald Trump from a deeper congressional investigation looking into Russia’s motives.
On Monday, McConnell told reporters the Senate Intelligence Committee “is more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter.” It quickly became clear the Kentucky Republican was not necessarily ordering any kind of formal review aimed at producing a final report — like the one that resulted in the committee’s 2014 investigation of the Benghazi attacks — but was simply calling on the committee to continue its ongoing probe on the issue.
“The committee’s ongoing oversight captures exactly what the leader described,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in a follow-up email.
Meanwhile, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr issued a statement suggesting his panel wasn’t launching any kind of new wide-ranging probe, but was just planning to continue the oversight work it is already doing.
“The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been, and remains, concerned about Russia’s actions,” the North Carolina Republican said in a statement. “The committee will continue to conduct vigorous oversight over activities and agencies within our jurisdiction in an appropriate and responsible way.”
Over in the House, Monday’s statements followed a similar pattern. McConnell’s early remarks made a big splash, but as the day developed it became clear Republican leaders were not pushing to expand their already-existing probes of alleged Russian interference — and were instead simply endorsing their ongoing oversight work.
A Ryan statement amounted to a rejection of calls for a larger special probe. Instead, he cited the ongoing work of House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), suggesting that the House probe would have a narrow focus on cyber threats.
“Throughout this Congress, Chairman Nunes and the Intelligence Committee have been working diligently on the cyber threats posed by foreign governments and terrorist organizations to the security and institutions of the United States,” Ryan said. “This important work will continue and has my support.”
Nunes explicitly rejected calls for an expanded probe in a statement of his own. “At this time I do not see any benefit in opening further investigations, which would duplicate current committee oversight efforts and intelligence community inquiries,” he said.
The commitment from leaders to their existing oversight stood in contrast with growing calls for a larger investigation that goes beyond what’s already being done.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain this weekend called for a select committee — the same kind of panel that investigated Watergate and, more recently, probed the Benghazi attacks in the midst of the election season. But the Arizona Republican acknowledged it could be difficult to get support for setting up such a committee.
In the meantime, McCain has tasked one of his top Senate allies, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), with running an Armed Services oversight effort focused on cyber threats.
“It’s clear the Russians interfered,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Now, whether they intended to interfere to the degree that they were trying to elect a certain candidate, I think that’s a subject of investigation.”
A number of Democrats on Monday called for more targeted probes.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “It’s absolutely essential that this investigation be bipartisan, wide-ranging, and have access to all of the relevant intelligence so that we can find out how this happened, and how we can stop it from happening ever again.”
Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont issued a joint statement urging “an independent, nonpartisan commission to comprehensively investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called for a “bicameral and bipartisan Congressional investigation.”
President-elect Donald Trump has dismissed allegations that Russia sought to tilt the presidential election in his favor, with his transition team issuing a statement saying the intelligence analysts who reached that conclusion “are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
President Barack Obama has ordered an executive branch investigation of the impact of hacking on U.S. presidential elections, with a goal of delivering its report before he leaves office.
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have a lot of leeway in determining the scope of their investigations. On one end of the spectrum, he said, is the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-page report on CIA torture under George W. Bush.
“That sort of represents one outer bound of possible Senate investigations,” Aftergood said. “At the other end, they could just hold a hearing on what others say they have found.”
He added: “It’s up to the grown-ups in both parties to say that this is a fundamental issue that requires a national response. We cannot have foreign actors tampering in our electoral process.”
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