Column: Congressional failure of constitutional proportion

FILE -- Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, walks past reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017. As Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee backed away in February 2018 from President Donald Trumpâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099s claim that the newly released memo vindicates him in the Russia investigation, Democrats pressed for the release of their own classified rebuttal, with a vote expected on whether to release it. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)  XNYT37
FILE -- Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, walks past reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017. As Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee backed away in February 2018 from President Donald Trumpâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099s claim that the newly released memo vindicates him in the Russia investigation, Democrats pressed for the release of their own classified rebuttal, with a vote expected on whether to release it. (Doug Mills/The New York Times) XNYT37
Published February 4 2018
Updated February 5 2018

The U.S. Constitution was created with perilous times in mind, which is why our founders established three separate and coequal branches of government.

Congress, the legislative branch, is supposed to act like a bellows with the House and Senate breathing life into the checks and balances embedded within our democratic system of governance.

Yet instead of fulfilling the founders’ purpose, Congress has failed the constitutional test of these perilous times. A congressional failure of constitutional proportion is illustrated most recently by dissembling over Russian penetration of our democracy and disingenuously attacking the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI.

The broader purpose of both is to undermine public confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller and delegitimize his work. If that creates conditions allowing President Donald Trump to force out Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and end the special counsel’s investigation, congressional complicity will be complete and so will the constitutional failure.

The memorandum issued by House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, a California Republican, is intended to achieve that purpose. Released last week, it purports to criticize a classified surveillance warrant application and, by extension, impugn Rosenstein, who approved the warrant application. As the twisted logic goes, if Rosenstein is purged from the Justice Department and replaced with someone loyal to a strongman instead of the rule of law, the way will be cleared for shutting down the work of the special counsel.

Thomas Paine, whose 281st birthday we observe this month, speaks to our present-day peril: "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

Men and women who yet believe in our democratic institutions and ideals must stand steadfast by them, now more than ever. The purging of those deemed disloyal to a regime is a characteristic of an autocracy, not a democracy.

I served in career appointments in the Justice Department and the FBI during both Republican and Democratic administrations. Not once in the Bush or Obama administrations did elected or politically appointed individuals purposely set out to destabilize our democratic institutions. Not once in either of those administrations did politicians seek to sow doubt about law enforcement for partisan gain. Not once in either of those administrations did anyone holding political power run a disinformation campaign against our own country.

A year ago, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia compromised our public information systems and disrupted our democratic electoral process during the 2016 election. Russia’s antipathy to democracy and its principal proponent, the United States, is nothing new. Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has long sought to prevent the spread of democracy and destabilize existing and emerging democracies throughout the world.

What is new is the willingness of Nunes and others on the House Intelligence Committee to run a disinformation campaign similar to the type of disinformation campaign run by Russian intelligence services. The effect of both is the same: destabilizing our democratic institutions, ideals and values.

The recent conduct by certain members of the House Intelligence community and others reveals an alarming absence of maturity, seriousness of purpose and probity. Scurrilous attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI create public safety and national security risk. Intentionally shattering trust in the men and women who work hard every day to keep us safe will impact federal criminal jury trials and will threaten access to critical counterintelligence sources of information.

What’s worse, the conduct reveals a lack of commitment to our democratic institutions, enabling the type of tyrannical governance Thomas Paine decried.

Ronald Reagan wouldn’t recognize Nunes, his fellow Californian. Long before Reagan became president, he was a champion for democracy and a formidable foe of tyranny. Reagan carried that moral clarity into the White House, and the result was the glorious triumph of democracy in the world that Thomas Paine foretold.

Who would have thought 281 years after Paine’s birth, the call would be renewed to summon champions for democracy right here at home.

Christopher J. Hunter is a former senior trial attorney with the Justice Department and a former special agent with the FBI. He is an adjunct professor of law in the Tampa Bay area and a Democratic candidate for Congress in U.S. House District 12, which covers portions of north Pinellas, northwest Hillsborough and all of Pasco County.

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