Senate Republicans are in no rush to step in to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from Donald Trump, despite the unpredictable president’s growing fury at an investigation that is tying his campaign ever closer to the Kremlin.
Though senators introduced two bipartisan bills earlier this year that would shield Mueller if Trump were to try to fire him, GOP lawmakers said they see no obvious signs that Trump is making moves to threaten Mueller and so do not need to advance any legislation at the moment.
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“I don’t feel an urgent need to pbad that law until you show me a reason Mr. Mueller’s in jeopardy,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has co-authored one of the bills. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind in the White House would think about replacing Mr. Mueller.”
Instead, as Mueller’s Russia probe entered a new and politically explosive phase Monday, Republicans largely offered words of support for the special counsel’s effort and suggested he should be allowed to continue unimpeded, even without new protection from Congress.
Mueller’s 5-month-old probe is eyeing whether any Americans aided Russia’s 2016 effort to interfere in the presidential election, and particularly whether any Trump campaign officials colluded with the Kremlin. He was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May after Trump fired James Comey as FBI director.
The probe has now ensnared Manafort and his longtime deputy Rick Gates, two senior figures in the Trump campaign, on charges of money laundering and failing to file as foreign agents. A foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, was also charged with lying to the FBI about his outreach to Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
The two bipartisan Mueller-protection bills take similar but not identical routes to shielding the special counsel from a hypothetical ouster.
Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) have proposed allowing a special counsel to contest a firing after the fact before a panel of federal judges, while Graham and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) would require an attorney general to seek judicial review before any move to fire a special counsel.
The Judiciary Committee examined the proposals at a hearing last month. They raised some measure of constitutional concern, although witnesses generally found less risk of a legal challenge in the Tillis-Coons approach. Coons said Monday he expects the two measures will be reconciled soon.
The Judiciary panel’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grbadley (R-Iowa), has yet to indicate publicly whether he would consider backing either bill to protect Mueller. In a Monday statement on the indictments, Grbadley emphasized the importance of the Justice Department “functioning free from inappropriate influence.”
Tillis, like Graham, said he’s not concerned about any imminent move by Trump to fire Mueller.
“Again, I want to make it clear that this is something I’m looking to get back into the purview of the Senate,” he said. “This isn’t just about this special counsel. It’s for all other future special counsels.”
Interviews with a dozen GOP senators suggested their lack of urgency seemed to be shared widely across the GOP conference.
“He’s not gonna be fired by the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Asked why he seemed so certain, Hatch said, “Because I know him, he knows that’d be a stupid move, as far as I’m concerned.”
House Republicans, who were away from the Capitol Monday, remained largely silent on the issue.
Speaker Paul Ryan has long said Mueller should be allowed to complete his work, and GOP leaders have tried to sidestep any unrest in their caucus aimed at Mueller.
But at least two members of the House GOP Conference — Reps. Trent Franks and Andy Biggs, both of Arizona — have called for Mueller to be removed. And conservative voices like The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and Fox News, which Trump voraciously consumes, are calling for Trump to fire Mueller or issue sweeping pardons. Both news outlets are owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said in a recent TV interview that he’s “in an increasingly small group of Republicans” who don’t want to see Mueller’s probe curtailed.
Democrats are demanding Trump leave Mueller alone and are urging their Republican colleagues to join them in blocking Trump if he were to try to impede the investigation.
“The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues.”
The White House has indicated that no such moves are in the offing. And for now, that seems good enough for GOP senators on Capitol Hill.
“I guess that’s a bridge you probably ought to think about crossing when you get there,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho).
Even Trump’s vocal critics in the Senate GOP Conference said they had trouble envisioning him taking action against Mueller.
“I mean that would be such an outrageous move,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) “My guess is they wish they hadn’t fired the first person but I can’t imagine that happening.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who denounced Trump in a speech announcing his retirement last week, said he is considering both bills to protect Mueller.
“I’m looking at it, I asked my staff actually today to review those two pieces of legislation,” he said. “It would be a problem, obviously, a big issue, if he were to fire Mueller.”
Connor O’Brien contributed reporting.