But it still looks unlikely that Congress will pass a law to prevent the president from firing the special counsel.
Republicans are mounting an urgent defense of special counsel Robert Mueller in the face of President Donald Trump’s latest attacks, with one key senator leading a renewed push to protect him and other GOP lawmakers arguing the special counsel’s report should become public when Mueller finishes his work.
The GOP alarm was palpable on Tuesday in the wake of Trump leaving the door open to canning Mueller. Republicans lawmakers are desperately trying to keep Mueller’s probe into Trump on track after the FBI raided the offices of Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, warning Trump he will end his presidency with such a move.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is pressing for the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up his legislation aimed at insulating Mueller from any attempt to fire him. Tillis is in discussions with Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) about merging two separate Mueller protection bills and then persuading Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley to pass them.
“It’s a good bill that’s going to have enduring value beyond this presidency. I think the president’s frustrated, I may be if I were in the same position,” Tillis said. “But I do think it’s a bill that’s worthy of a mark-up in Judiciary and sending it to the floor.”
Coons said he was “encouraged” by the remarks of his negotiating partner.
“Given the president’s threatening and aggressive statements … this is more urgent than ever,” Coons said.
The reaction on Capitol Hill came after Trump, responding to Monday’s FBI raid of Cohen’s office, raised the specter of trying to end the special counsel investigation.
“I think it’s a disgrace what’s going on. We’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters when asked why he doesn’t simply fire Mueller. “But I think it’s really a sad situation when you look at what happened. And many people have said, ‘You should fire him.'”
GOP leaders still have no plans to pass legislation to protect Mueller. But four Republican senators said in interviews Tuesday that Mueller’s report should see daylight when it’s complete, even if the Trump administration has the option of keeping it secret.
“The facts will come out one way or the other,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). ”I don’t have any trouble with it being made public.”
Maneuvering to make Mueller’s findings public is one thing for Republicans. Passing legislation to protect him is another hurdle entirely, and one that would be sure to enrage Trump.
“It would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing Mueller,” Grassley said on Fox Business Network Tuesday. “The less the president said on this whole thing, the better off he would be, the stronger his presidency would be.”
Grassley has not taken a firm position on the Mueller protection bills and aired potential constitutional concerns with the legislation.
“I would hope it’s not needed,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. “Any move in either direction is probably the wrong move. Stay the course until we finish it.”
Whether the Senate GOP’s pointed defense of Mueller translates into legislation to protect his job remains to be seen. Two such bills have languished in the Senate for months. But Republicans’ unequivocal support for the public release of Mueller’s report, which isn’t required by DOJ regulations, suggests they’re ready to go to bat for him.
“As much transparency that we can bring to this investigation, the better it would be,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). “There’s going to have to be some guardrails in place on that, where appropriate, but I think transparency generally is the right principle.”
Justice Department regulations that govern Mueller’s appointment require that the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees be notified when his work is complete. Those regulations don’t mandate the submission of any report to Congress on Mueller’s findings, but Rosenstein would come under significant political pressure to release any report from the special counsel.
“I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be a public interest in having at least the non-classified portions of that report available for public consumption,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “It will be the foundation for a conversation that members of Congress will have to have with their constituents.”
Trump took a more direct swipe at Mueller on Monday than he has in the past. And now, more than ever, Democrats say, Congress should intervene to pass legislation to prevent Trump from short-circuiting the Mueller probe. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said “Congress must respond forcefully” by passing a law to protect Mueller.
Tillis and Coons’ bill allows special counsels to challenge their firing after the fact, while a competing proposal from Graham and Booker would provide judicial review before any special counsel can be axed. The trick is merging them in a way that Grassley would be inclined take them up. He dismissed questions from reporters on Tuesday.
“We’ve been trying to marry the bills for some time, and we’ve made some progress in our communications among senators,” Booker said in an interview. But Booker made clear that even if the Judiciary Committee can reach a bipartisan agreement, the same obstacle remains: “[W]ill we get McConnell to put it on the floor? That’s the real question.”
Another one is whether Republicans feel confident that Trump will not fire Mueller. When Trump has lashed out in the past, the White House issued soothing statements ease such concerns.
There’s been no statement this time.
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), a former Judiciary Committee chairman, said he hoped Trump’s comments would stir Republicans to act.
“That kind of assault on how the criminal justice system works,” he said, “I have never seen anything like that since Watergate.”
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