In 2012, there is a terrorist attack on a US government facility in post-civil war Libya. Congressional Republicans respond by spending $7m on 33 separate hearings over four years. They hope to find evidence that the Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton, was in some way guilty of wrongdoing.
The investigators look at the security levels of US embassy in Tripoli, how quickly the Defense Department responded to the attack, and whether the CIA is at fault for failing to do more to prevent it. Clinton’s every communication comes under the microscope, especially the phone conversations she conducted on the night. Her response is repeatedly slammed as being inadequate. She is accused of putting the security of US citizens at risk. Despite this, each report clears her of wrongdoing.
Four years later, Michael Flynn, the nominee to be Donald Trump’s national security adviser, is alleged to have discussed lifting US sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador before Trump’s inauguration. At this time, he is acting as a private citizen. As a result, his comments are not only inappropriate, but some say potentially illegal under the 1799 Logan Act which forbids private citizens from negotiating with foreign powers on behalf of the government. Intelligence sources say he discussed the sanctions on Russia; Flynn denies it, but later tones down his replies and resigns.
One of these incidents was a terror attack, the other a scandal of deceit and improper communications. But both centre around the conduct and – in particular – the conversations of a White House cabinet member dealing with a foreign country on issues of national security. The hearings into Benghazi were not about the attack itself, but the government’s response to it. Clinton was accused of risking American lives, of breaking protocol, and of lying.
You might hope that a similar investigation would be established to look into an incident whereby a US official put himself and his country’s stance on another nation at risk, and then, apparently, lied about it. Some politicians are already calling for it.
The case for treating Flynn’s resignation with the same level of scrutiny that Clinton endured over Benghazi is strengthened when you consider how the rest of the administration behaved. It has been reported that the Justice Department warned the White House about the content of Flynn’s conversations, that the FBI questioned Flynn on this matter, and that there were transcripts available of his calls. Nonetheless, the White House continued to defend Flynn for weeks and deny he had done anything inappropriate. The acting attorney general had expressed concerns that Flynn risked being blackmailed by Russia, and may have broken the law. What was the White House’s response to this? How did they mitigate the risks posed by Flynn’s recklessness? Who else knew? Who else spoke to Russia? Why did it takes weeks for this to come to light, and why, once it did, was Flynn allowed to resign rather than being fired?
All these are questions that a Congress committed to protecting America’s national interests should be determined to answer. The Flynn scandal comes after conclusive reports that Russia interfered in the US presidential election, and follows the release of an unverified dossier suggesting the president himself may be at risk of blackmail. The New York Times has also reported that multiple Trump aides had contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
The response of congressional Republicans to this saga has been a disappointing silence.
House Intelligence Committee Chair David Nunes has refused to investigate, citing “executive privilege”, which usually only applies to the president himself. He said his greatest concern was not Flynn’s contact with Russian officials, but the fact that the FBI had tapped the conversation. House Speaker Paul Ryan has declined to use his platform to call for an independent investigation into Flynn’s resignation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been slightly warmer to the possibility of an investigation, saying it was “highly likely” the Intelligence Committee would look into it.
Some prominent Republicans have spoken out, including Senators John Cornyn and John McCain. But others have offered excuses for their party’s failure to act. Representative Chris Collins defended his party’s silence on the issue by saying it was Valentine’s Day. Senator Rand Paul, went further, implying it would be inconvenient for Republicans to give this issue the scrutiny it deserves. He said: “I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense.”
The double standard here is so blatant that Republicans are not even trying to justify it. Paul has effectively admitted that transparency and due process matter less than partisan politics.
Back to the Benghazi investigations. Clinton’s perceived crime was she didn’t pick up the phone quickly enough to respond to an attack carried out by terrorists. Flynn today is facing accusations that he deliberately undermined US foreign policy and covered it up. If Republicans cared about security as much as they cared about bringing down Clinton, his resignation should be the start of an inquiry, not the end.