As Trump vents anger over Russia probe, some senators propose protecting Mueller from getting fired
President Trump’s anger over what he called the “fake and corrupt” Russia investigation flared anew on Wednesday, fueling a bipartisan push in the Senate for a new proposal to prevent the president from firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The revised legislation, which merges two ideas introduced last year, would write into law current regulations saying the special counsel can only be removed for good cause by Justice Department leaders. It would also allow the special counsel to appeal the firing in court.
“This is a time when all of us — Republicans and Democrats — need to stand up and make it clear that we are committed to the rule of law in this country,” Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democratic sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.
A Republican sponsor, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, said in his statement, “The integrity and independence of special counsel investigations are vital to reaffirming the American people’s confidence in our nation’s rule of law.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to consider the legislation next week.
Trump has struggled for months to stifle his irritation at the investigation into Russia’s election interference, possible Trump campaign complicity and whether the president sought to obstruct justice. Last month he singled out Mueller by name for the first time. But his rage exploded on Monday after federal agents raided the New York home, office and hotel room of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer.
Although the agents were reportedly looking for evidence involving hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs to Trump years ago, the raids were based at least in part on information provided by Mueller to the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan.
Venting on Twitter on Wednesday morning, Trump blamed the investigation into Moscow’s political interference for “much of the bad blood with Russia.” He accused the special counsel’s office of being staffed by “Democrat loyalists” and described Mueller as “conflicted.”
Mueller, and Justice Department leaders, are Republicans. Trump did not say why he thinks Mueller has a conflict of interest, a charge that could lay the groundwork for removing him. He’s previously complained that Mueller should not lead the probe because, among other reasons, Trump interviewed him as a potential FBI director after firing James B. Comey in May.
Mueller, who previously was FBI director under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was appointed special counsel by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein soon after that interview.
The push for a law protecting the special counsel received another boost this week after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested on Tuesday that the president has the authority to directly fire Mueller.
Her statement raised eyebrows because the White House has previously denied that firing Mueller was under consideration. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to say whether the department provided a legal opinion on the topic.
It’s been broadly assumed that Trump would need to order Justice leaders to remove Mueller, rather than doing it himself.
That’s how President Richard Nixon ousted Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, in 1973. When the attorney general and his deputy refused Nixon’s order to fire Cox, they were pushed aside. The solicitor general, Robert Bork, who was next in the chain of command, carried out the decision. That so-called Saturday Night Massacre created a fierce backlash and led to the appointment of a second special prosecutor.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.), who announced on Wednesday that he wouldn’t run for reelection, said people at the White House — he did not specify who — assured him that Trump would not fire Mueller.
“"I have no reason to believe that’s going to happen,” Ryan said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) similarly has cited White House reassurances to oppose legislation to protect Mueller. It’s unclear whether such assurance will hold. Trump reportedly ordered the firing of Mueller last June, backing down only when his White House counsel threatened to quit rather than help carry out the order. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump also wanted to “shut down” Mueller’s investigation in December.
Although Republican leaders in the House and Senate have not advanced the legislation to protect Mueller, they’ve repeatedly and publicly urged Trump not to interfere with the special counsel.
“It’s still my view that Mueller should be allowed to finish his job,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.
John Yoo, a UC Berkeley law professor who worked in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration, said the president will find a way to fire Mueller if he chooses.
“If Trump wants to fire Mueller, he will fire him — it’s only a question of how many minutes it will take,” Yoo wrote in an email.
Right now Justice Department rules say that “the special counsel may be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the attorney general.” In Mueller’s case, that would be Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, because Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation last year.
Yoo said Trump could argue that the Justice Department regulation “cannot constrain his constitutional authority — long recognized by Congress and the Supreme Court — to remove the attorney general and other subordinate appointees within the Justice Department.”
Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and the author of a book about Archibald Cox, said it would be inappropriate for a president to reach down the chain of command to remove law enforcement officials.
“You could effectively nullify any criminal investigation,” he said. “You must not be allowed to run roughshod over the rule of law.”
5:00 p.m.: The story was updated to reflect the revised schedule for the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider legislation involving the special counsel.
The story was originally published at 1:40 p.m.
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