Republicans avoid confronting Trump over whether he can fire special counsel

President Trump congratulates Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on tax legislation on Dec. 20, 2017.
President Trump congratulates Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on tax legislation on Dec. 20, 2017.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

The Senate Judiciary Committee appeared an island of civility Thursday as Democrats and Republicans politely debated and voted 14 to 7 to approve bipartisan legislation intended to prevent President Trump from firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III without cause.

But the action only highlights how intractable the question has become as Mueller’s investigation moves deeper into the White House. The proposed bill is expected to stall because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has publicly vowed not to let it advance further.

McConnell says legislation is unnecessary because he doesn’t think Trump will fire Mueller. The president reportedly attempted to do so last June, backing down only after his White House counsel threatened to quit.


The committee hearing Thursday reflected the delicate dance between Trump and Republicans in Congress. Many grumble about his hair-trigger tweets, unconventional policies and scandal-plagued appointments, but are reluctant to impose constraints on his presidency.

“If you read their private comments, they don’t trust the guy as far as they can spit,” said Jim Manley, a former staff member for Senate Democratic leaders. “But for whatever reason, they’re not willing to go after him.”

Part of the challenge is trying to decipher Trump’s intentions at any point. Shortly before Thursday’s hearing, for example, the president told “Fox & Friends” he would not intervene in the Justice Department, where the Mueller inquiry is based — but then added a caveat.

“I may change my mind at some point because what’s going on is a disgrace,” he said.

Jason Chaffetz, a onetime Republican congressman from Utah who doggedly pursued President Obama’s administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when he chaired the House Oversight Committee in 2015 and 2016, rejected the suggestion that Republicans have gone easy on Trump.

“Any allegation that oversight has slowed down under Trump is just bunk,” Chaffetz said in an interview. “It will never be enough for the Democrats,” he added.

Both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly last July to slap new sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s military operations in Ukraine and Syria, among other concerns. Trump considered a veto then signed the legislation, but didn’t impose the penalties until this year.

The Republican-controlled Congress has given Trump broad leeway on most other issues. No hearings have been held, for example, on the overlap between Trump’s official duties and his family business empire even though lobbyists, politicians and foreign leaders spend vast sums at his hotels and clubs.

Nor have they scrutinized Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who faces a similar dilemma trying to separate his White House role from his family’s real estate interests. He remains a senior advisor to the president despite losing his high-level security clearance.

Follow the latest news of the Trump administration on Essential Washington »

Mueller was appointed last May to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether any of Trump’s aides were involved.

So far, four former aides, including the president’s former national security advisor, have pleaded guilty to various charges. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has pleaded not guilty to nearly two dozen charges of money laundering, bank fraud and tax evasion.

None of Trump’s associates has been charged with election-related crimes, and the president has repeatedly denounced the investigation as a “witch hunt.” His anger spiked after Mueller sent evidence to federal prosecutors in Manhattan and they seized a trove of documents from Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, on April 9.

Republicans have repeatedly warned the White House that firing Mueller could plunge the country into a political or even constitutional crisis, but many say legislation isn’t the right approach.

Some expressed concern in Thursday’s hearing that the bipartisan proposal — which would allow a special counsel to appeal his removal in court — would be unconstitutional because Congress doesn’t have authority to reduce a president’s power over the executive branch, which includes the Justice Department.

Others said the legislation is unnecessary because Mueller, a former FBI director, is safe in his job.

“The president is not going to fire Director Mueller because the repercussions of doing so would be disastrous for his presidency and for the country,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Besides, he added, “This bill will not be taken up on the Senate floor, the House will not pass it, the president will not sign it.”

The White House says Trump has no plans to fire Mueller. The president “certainly believes he has the power to do so,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on April 10.

Russell Riley, co-chairman of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia, said that passing legislation to protect special counsels would be a “sharp stick in the eye of the president” and that he’s not surprised Republicans aren’t taking that step against Trump.

“What they’re trying to do is erect, by their language, some guardrails against the president taking this step,” Riley said.

Some of those guardrails were on full display Thursday as several Republicans issued dire warnings, but then voted against the proposed legislation.

“Firing Mueller would case a firestorm and bring the administration agenda to a halt,” warned Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who voted no. “It could even result in impeachment.”

“It would be politically suicidal for the president” to fire Mueller, agreed Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).

For Republicans, avoiding confrontation with Trump has often been a good bargain, especially when they can advance long-sought policies like the tax cuts passed in December.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who plans to step down at the end of his term, said that he saw no reason to “get in a food fight with the president” and that he won’t send legislation to the White House that Trump won’t sign.

“I don’t think it makes any sense to bring a bill through or a process through that would produce a bill that will get a presidential veto,” he said. “I just don’t think that that’s in anyone’s interest.”

Twitter: @chrismegerian