There's Not Much Upset Lawmakers Can Do About the Russia Investigation

May 10, 2017

Despite dismay on Capitol Hill over President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, disgruntled lawmakers have few options to shape the investigations into Trump campaign’s Russia ties.

Comey’s dismissal on Tuesday raised on outcry in Congress, with Democrats and Republicans questioning why Trump chose to dismiss the FBI director now. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called for an independent investigation into Russia’s influence in the election.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said on Wednesday that he does not support a special investigation.

“Today we will no doubt hear calls for a new investigation which could only serve to impede the current work being done,” McConnell said on the floor of the Senate.

And Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s meddling in the election, also said he did not support a special prosecutor.

“ My committee’s got the responsibility to investigate this, we are going to do that,” Burr said.

Without support from Congressional leadership, the Democratic and Republican lawmakers calling for a special prosecutor or a select committee to investigate Trump’s ties with Russia are unlikely t0 make much of an impact.

There are now two path that Congress could take: Both chambers could demand that the FBI bring on a special counsel who is independent of the normal law enforcement hierarchy. That person would have broad subpoena power and would be difficult to fire.

Or Republicans and Democrats could unite in favor of a special Congressional committee, tasked solely with investigating Russia's meddling.

With a reluctant Republican majority in both the House and the Senate, however, both paths seem out of reach.

The special prosecutor would be appointed by President Trump’s Department of Justice, and Congress has little direct influence over the agency. And Senate and House Democrats do not have the majority needed to create a special Congressional committee that would have subpoena power and wide leverage to pursue leads in the White House.

Senate Democrats have some influence in whom they ask to appear before the Intelligence Committee, which is currently investigating. They won an important concession on Wednesday: Comey himself has been invited to appear next week in a closed-door session.

They can also pressure the FBI to increase the pace of its investigation. But the Justice Department belongs to the executive branch. And ultimately, the choice of when Congress issues subpoenas is up to Burr, the Republican committee chair.

Democrats may choose to gum up Senate business, dragging the chamber proceedings to a halt by delaying confirmation votes or considering legislation unless Trump appoints a special prosecutor.

But in the short term, power rests with the White House and with Congressional leadership, which have shown no signs of support for a separate investigation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for an independent investigation into Russia’s influence in the election.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, has called for a special committee, and two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee — Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Kamala Harris of California — said they were considering what options they might have.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona reiterated his call for a special committee to investigate Russia’s election meddling, and some Republican members of the House of Representatives, including Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Barbara Comstock have called for an independent investigation as well.

Some Republican members who fell short of calling for an independent investigation said they want to be briefed by Administration officials on why Comey was fired this week.

"I'm going to try to figure out why the timing and why it happened at this point," said Sen. James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma and member of the Intelligence Committee. "There is a need for not just us but the American people to know: why now?"

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon on behalf of the upper chambers' Democrats, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for a special prosecutor to be appointed by a career employee in the Justice Department, not by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who wrote the memo justifying Comey's dismissal).

Schumer also called for Comey to testify before Congress, and for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to explain to Congress their decision to recommend firing Comey.

Only one of the Democrats' requests, however stands a real chance of being fulfilled anytime soon: the invitation to Comey to testify.

Burr and Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, may have their request fulfilled, depending on Comey's response.

Democrats can only cross their fingers.

"We Democrats hope and expect that [Comey] will still come before the Senate in some capacity, and I for one salute Sens. Burr and Warner for inviting him to testify next week before the Intelligence Committee," Schumer said. "It’s the right thing to do."

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