As Congress and investigators consider their next steps after the last week of revelations about the White House, transparency will be the key element in rebuilding credibility with an American public weary of disinformation and deception.
The New York Times reported yesterday, in a story now confirmed by many other outlets, that former FBI Director Jim Comey kept detailed records of his conversations with President Trump – and that one memo describes the President saying to Comey “I hope you can let this go,” referring to the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.
In one sense, it is shocking that a sitting President might seek to interfere with an FBI investigation of the White House. The revelation, though, is hardly a surprise for a President who has repeatedly publicly attacked the FBI and intelligence community in broad, unfounded terms; who holds the rule of law in such low regard that calling for his opponent to be jailed became a hallmark of his Presidential campaign.
In the midst of an avalanche of revelations about the Trump Presidency, the Comey memo only underscores the urgent need for not only a full public accounting of the Trump team’s relationship with Russia but all of the related obfuscation and obstruction since the inauguration. (This, all on top of the President’s refusal to provide any reliable disclosure of the unprecedented conflicts of interest posed by his finances, business interests, and debts.)
The worst response to a crisis of public faith in democracy may be to validate it, and President Trump’s conduct has done just that. Trust may be essential to a democracy, but it is also earned, or lost, through our elected officials’ behavior.
The Trump White House’s disdain for basic democratic ideas like transparency and the independent press have created a stress test for our democracy. Perhaps the one silver lining to the current crisis is that reliable, independent journalism is now driving the public debate. And the pace and gravity of the last week of journalism are finally beginning to force Congress’s hand, despite obviously conflicting partisan incentives on the right.
House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz’s request for Comey’s memo is a good start, as is the ongoing, bipartisan investigation in the Senate Intelligence Committee. More broadly, Congress must take responsibility for creating a reliable public record of what has gone wrong, as a first step toward rebuilding trust and preventing further abuse.
Regardless of where the next steps lead, transparency will be essential to the credibility of our political institutions. A public that has contended with disinformation, dishonesty, and partisan response will need access to primary documents and records whenever possible.
More specifically, to start, the Comey memos should be released as extensively as possible. Any tapes or relevant records from the White House should be preserved,as the Presidential Records Act requires, and handed over to Congress. Any officials involved in the investigations should follow professional guidelines for recusal.
In firing Comey, Trump already created the need for a special prosecutor and an independent commission, and that’s a necessary, but not sufficient step forward.
The road back to credibility must be paved with transparency, not just good intentions.