Politics

Senate Panel Sends Message By Advancing Mueller Bill

A warning to Trump even if special counsel protections don’t become law

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to provide job protection for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but it faces major obstacles. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday to give protections to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which senators said sent a message to President Donald Trump even if it has major hurdles to ever becoming law.

Although the 14-7 vote on the measure split Republicans, the message from the committee to Trump was clear.

Some Republicans who voted against advancing the bill also warned Trump about firing Mueller. And most opponents of the bill also voted for an amendment, which was not adopted, that included the line: “Robert Mueller should be permitted to finish his work in a timely fashion.”

“I think it was also important that Republicans and Democrats today reasserted that, whether agreeing with this bill or not, we all have a view that Special Counsel Mueller should be able to conclude his investigation without harassment or interference,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said after the vote.

Watch: Senators Support Mueller Protection Bill For Different Reasons

The bill advanced over objections from some Republicans who say the measure would unconstitutionally infringe on a president’s power. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who controls what bills come to the Senate floor, said this bill won’t be scheduled.

Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, one of seven Republicans who voted against the bill, noted the political obstacles for the bill.

“This bill will not be taken up on the Senate floor. The House will not pass it. The president will not sign it,” Cornyn said.

Also voting against the final bill: Hatch and GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and John Kennedy of Louisiana.

The committee action came a few hours after Trump said on “Fox & Friends” — amid reports that he has considered firing Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department official who oversees Mueller's probe — that he wouldn’t get involved but could change his mind.

“So, I’m very disappointed in my Justice Department. But because of the fact that it’s going on, and I think you’ll understand this, I have decided that I won’t be involved,” Trump said. “I may change my mind at some point because what’s going on is a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

‘A Check and Balance’

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and three other committee Republicans joined the committee's 10 Democrats to approve the bill, which supporters said would protect not only Mueller but future special counsels. The measure would give a special counsel 10 days to ask a federal judge to review whether a removal was for “good cause,” and if not, allow the special counsel to stay in the job.

Republicans voting to advance the bill included Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Graham and Tillis wrote the bipartisan measure with Coons and Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Flake has been outspoken in his criticism of Trump.

Tillis and Graham both emphasized that this bill is wise not just for Mueller’s probe of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives who interfered with the 2016 elections, but for the future.

“It’s about a system for today, tomorrow and forever that makes sure nobody, even the president, is above scrutiny,” Graham said. “When we put someone in this spot, they’re in a political hot spot, that’s the nature of the special counsel, and I think we’d be well served as a nation to have a check and balance on that situation.”

The measure included an amendment from Grassley that would require the executive branch to issue a report to Congress about when a special counsel is appointed or removed, or when the investigation of the special counsel concludes. It also would codify certain Justice Department regulations governing the special counsel.

Executive Power

The constitutional questions centered on a 1988 Supreme Court decision that a previous law about an “independent counsel” did not violate the Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers. That decision has not been overturned, yet it includes a renowned dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia that says Congress can’t infringe on a purely executive power to prosecute.

Lee offered an amendment, first submitted by Cornyn, that would have gutted the bill. It would have changed the bill to note Scalia’s dissent in the case, Morrison v. Olson, is now “widely considered the law of the land across the political spectrum” and instead of giving protections to special counsels, would send a clear signal the president should not fire Mueller.

The committee rejected that amendment on a 6-15 vote.

Coons, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and other Democrats said they were convinced that the bill would be constitutional. Grassley said it is “an open question” whether the bill is constitutional.

“You can try to predict what the Supreme Court will do, and they could overturn Morrison v. Olson, but you might be wrong,” Grassley said. “And you wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake.” 

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