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US Congress hearings on Russia could descend into a partisan slugfest

When the congressional intelligence committees kick off hearings into possible Russian meddling in the US election, public attention is guaranteed. But those expecting an objective inquiry may be disappointed.

Even before the House Intelligence Committee starts its investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the US election, to be followed later by a Senate intelligence inquiry, the battle lines have been drawn. 

Democrats have made clear that they would prefer an independent commission to look into the matter over Republican-controlled hearings in Congress. Republicans have rebuffed those calls, arguing that they will preside fairly and not shy away from asking tough questions even if that may hurt their own party or president. Outside observers, however, are not convinced.

"I see partisan trouble ahead," said Loch Johnson, who was a staff member in the historic Church Committee that investigated intelligence abuses by the CIA and others in the 1970s. Johnson, now an international relations professor at the University of Georgia, also worked on both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. 

Thin veneer of cooperation

"Right now there is a thin veneer of everyone getting together and taking this seriously," he noted, but cautioned that could slip away quickly and easily.

Washington US-Präsident Trump im Interview (Reuters/J. Ernst)

Trump and his administration have been criticized for alleged and real ties to Russia

Trying to conduct serious and objective congressional investigations is a difficult task in any case, Johnson explained, as committees and their members have so many other duties that they often simply do not have the necessary time and resources to deal with complex issues that would normally require undivided attention.

Complicating things further is the current political climate, with President Donald Trump and his team already under public scrutiny for their alleged and real connections with Russia as well as for the president's unproven claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor Barack Obama. Conducting a serious investigation into possible Russian interference is therefore an even more challenging task for any Republican.

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Trump loyalist as committee chief

But for someone like Devin Nunes, the Republican House Intelligence Committee chief who was part of Trump's transition team, it may prove to be an impossible task.    

"The positions and approaches of Republicans, led by Trump loyalist Devin Nunes, will be dramatically different from the Democrats led by Adam Schiff," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, via email. 

Due to the partisan nature of the inquiry in the House and to a somewhat lesser extent in the Senate, Ornstein's expectations are low.  

"It is unlikely that a public hearing will provide any bombshells or dramatic revelations," he said. "But there should be real fireworks."

Devin Nunes (picture alliance/dpa/S.Corum)

Nunes was part of Trump's transition team

That is precisely why Loch Johnson would have preferred an external inquiry, like the 9/11 commission, to investigate potential Russian meddling in the US election.  

No deep dive

"I think both of those committees have had a history of contention and I think it is going to be hard for them to conduct a deep dive investigation into these topics, particularly after the two chairmen, Nunes of the House and Burr of the Senate committee, have very close ties to Trump," said Johnson.

He worries that Democrats could sooner rather than later stop their participation in the hearings, arguing that they are biased, and that they could ultimately even launch their own investigation.

Instead, Johnson said, "I would hope that the committees would realize before too long that it is such a hot potato politically speaking for them, and that they realize they have to turn this over to an outside independent commission."

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