A how-to guide for investigating the president

SMU Political Science Professor Joshua Rovner, the Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics & National Security Policy, writes about the talk of investigating President Trump, the election, and the Russians.

By Joshua Rovner

Michael Flynn's sudden resignation has led to calls for a public investigation of President Donald Trump and his advisers. Critics want to know whether they colluded with Russian officials to undermine Hillary Clinton's campaign. They also want to know what the president knew, and when he knew it.

These questions are too important to ignore. They cast doubt on the legitimacy of the current administration, and they raise the unsettling prospect that American elections are vulnerable to outside influence. There is already circumstantial evidence about inappropriate contact between the Trump team and Russia. More revelations are likely, given the flood of leaks from the administration. For these reasons, some kind of inquiry is inevitable.

Unfortunately, any investigation will leave a lot of Americans angry.

If congressional committees handle the process and sharply restrict the bounds of inquiry, Democrats will cry, "whitewash!" If an independent commission undertakes a sweeping review, however, Trump supporters will cry, "witch hunt!" They will also see it as further evidence that the system is rigged against them — and their champion.

Thus, there is a danger that a large chunk of the population will become disillusioned in the aftermath of the investigation, no matter what it finds. For decades, public trust in government has been in decline. This is likely to make it worse.

The key question for Congress is this: How do you investigate foreign meddling in American politics without reducing faith in American political institutions?

How can Congress avoid this Catch-22? It can start by delegating responsibility to professional staff and outside experts in all phases of the process. The more an investigation is handled by legal and intelligence specialists, the better. Removing elected officials will help reduce the perception that the investigation is a partisan exercise.

In addition, the scope of the investigation should be clearly defined at the outset. This will disappoint those who want to follow the evidence wherever it leads, but it is necessary to keep the investigation from going down the rabbit hole of speculation. Demonstrating ruthless restraint is also important to ensure the process gains a reputation for impartiality and consistency.

The language of the final report should remain neutral to the point of being dull. Suggestive language threatens the credibility of the investigation by raising the possibility that the authors are drawing dramatic conclusions from partial and incomplete information. Readers should not expect a spy novel.

Above all, the investigation should be a fact-finding exercise. Those responsible should resist the urge to make sweeping declarations about what must be done. Their motto should be analysis, not exhortation.

Beyond the investigation, Congress should also think about efforts to restore public confidence in government. Such efforts cannot be done quickly, given the depth of public cynicism. Instead, it would start by reconsidering how we teach politics to students at all levels.

For years, conservative commentators have bemoaned the disappearance of old-fashioned civics classes. They have a point. Healthy political debates assume a baseline knowledge of policy and government, but it is not clear students are getting what they need.

Now, liberals have reason to get on board. Like their counterparts on the right, they are shocked at Trump's attacks on American norms and institutions, and deeply troubled that his attacks were popular among millions of voters. Reversing this trend requires a generational effort.

Let's not be naïve: The allegations against the Trump team are potentially scandalous, and we are in for a vicious political fight. But a careful investigation, and a renewed focus on our collective education, may limit the damage.

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