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Behind The Scenes In A Congressional Investigation


As congressional investigations continued this week into possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, there have been private meetings, arrangements for more private meetings, subpoenas issued, subpoenas rescinded. So it got us wondering, what goes on behind the scenes? And what can we learn from past investigations? Charles Tiefer has some insight. He served as special deputy counsel of the House Iran-Contra committee 30 years ago this month. Mr. Tiefer, thanks for joining us.

CHARLES TIEFER: It's a pleasure.

GONYEA: So right now, there are multiple congressional committees investigating this issue. We've got them on the House side. We've got a couple on the Senate side. I guess I want to know why is there a need for multiple investigations, and how do these congressional investigations differ at their core from what Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting?

TIEFER: Well, Senate Intelligence looks at intelligence matters primarily. Senate Judiciary looks at matters that fall under the broad scope of the Judiciary Committee. All these congressional investigations differ very much in function from what the Special Counsel Mueller does. Mueller works in secret and long, long deep studies of things like finances. And he doesn't bring his results public. If he finds something that's really important, he won't let you know until it's time to indict somebody. Whereas, the congressional committees when classification allows them to be in the open, they live for open hearings. They want people to know what they found.

GONYEA: And what about compelling witnesses to testify? The subpoena, is that a last resort thing or is it just a negotiating device?

TIEFER: Oh, the subpoena is the basic working tool of these investigations. It can be a single piece of paper that demands that the witness show up on pain of contempt. Or it can also be a subpoena of the kind that seeks documents, including digital material like emails. By bringing in a witness, they cut through a lot of the stalling. And by demanding the documents, they have the materials to pin the witness down in the questioning.

GONYEA: And what about the value of closed-door sessions? Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and top adviser, met with the committee behind closed doors this week. What's the value of that to the committee even as it frustrates the public a bit?

TIEFER: Well, there are pluses and minuses to it. It's best if it's a preparation for a public session. Committee staff, for example, will do a behind-closed-doors questioning very thoroughly and minutely using documents in a way that you don't see so much in a public session. So it can be good preparation. It's also, in this particular situation, it's possible that there's a mixture of classified and non-classified material and you sort that out during the behind-closed-doors.

GONYEA: It sounds like you're describing a dress rehearsal or something like that.

TIEFER: Well, I think that's right. It's kind of funny because the committees and their staff who are questioning are adversaries of the witness. And they're struggling. And yet, they cooperate in a dress rehearsal so that they can then put on the open session and show their differences in public but in a way that doesn't violate the classification system.

GONYEA: How important is public interest - maybe public intrigue is a better way to put it - as all this plays out?

TIEFER: Oh, public interest is the fuel that drives congressional investigations. The willingness of senators and representatives to devote their time and energy both to the background work, the negotiations, the documents study and to the public work of hearings - they do it because they know the public is interested. They are not doing - this not a game of Solitaire. They're not playing it for their own amusement. They're doing it - the special committees do it for the public.

GONYEA: University of Baltimore Law Professor Charles Tiefer. Thank you very much for joining us and explaining some of these things.

TIEFER: Thank you.

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