Republican leaders in Congress have argued that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election should not be cut short, but they have done little to ensure it isn’t.
Even as President Donald Trump has stepped up criticism of the former FBI director’s team of prosecutors — criticizing him by name for the first time in a tweet over the weekend — GOP leaders have said that they don’t believe Congress needs to take any action, arguing that they don’t think the president would actually fire Mueller.
“Bob Mueller should be allowed to finish his job. I think it was an excellent appointment, I think he’ll go wherever the facts lead him, and I think he’ll have great credibility with the American people when he concludes this investigation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.
But as for whether Congress would consider bills that would ensure the security of his job? “I don’t think it’s necessary,” McConnell said. “I don’t think Bob Mueller is going anywhere — I think that’s a widespread feeling. He’s a thoroughly credible individual.”
McConnell’s remarks came after a weekend that left many worried that the White House was preparing to fire Mueller in an effort to stifle the ongoing investigation. On Friday, Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — whom Trump has accused of having sympathies with former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — just two days shy of McCabe’s scheduled retirement.
“The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” Trump tweeted on Saturday night. “It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!”
Since May of last year, Mueller, who helmed the F.B.I. from 2001 to 2003, has led the Justice Department’s inquiry into how the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Trump has repeatedly condemned the special counsel investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt,” and last summer reportedly asked White House lawyers to fire Mueller.
The reports alarmed a number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Since then, four bills — two in the Senate and two in the House of Representatives — have been introduced that would impede the president’s ability to fire the special counsel. The bills before the Senate are both bipartisan: one, sponsored by Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, that would allow the dismissal of a special counsel only in the event of “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, or conflict of interest,” and another, sponsored by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, that would create a lengthy judicial process in order to do so.
But the bills demonstrated little momentum in December, when reports of Trump’s attempted dismissal of Mueller arose, and their fate seems just as bleak today. (They are currently stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.)
Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, have described any legislative attempt to protect Mueller as unnecessary.
“I’ll refer to [Trump’s] lawyers, who believe [Mueller] should be allowed to finish the job,” McConnell said on Tuesday, referring to comments from White House lawyer Ty Cobb, who said Trump was not planning on firing the special counsel.
“We need to leave the investigation alone and let it go forward in the manner that it should,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has often criticized Trump, told reporters on Tuesday. “You guys know I’m always transparent. Do I think anything’s getting ready to pass? I don’t. We’re looking at the two bills with the knowledge that it’s unlikely that either of them moves.”
Corker said that Congress missed its opportunity to include protections for Mueller in the omnibus spending package that lawmakers must pass by Friday.
Democrats have repeatedly called for votes on the bills protecting the special counsel. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took a more balanced tone, applauding his Republican counterpart McConnell for his willingness to publicly defend Mueller’s integrity.
“I certainly hope President Trump is listening,” Schumer said. “I think the president would create havoc, disaster, const crisis in the country if he tried to [interfere].”
Others were more blunt.
“I think every member of Congress should regard this as a critical moment in their time in public service,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told reporters on Tuesday. “To fire Bob Mueller is an attack on the rule of law and fundamental American values. Nobody has ever challenged his objectivity and the fact that he is rigorously tethered to the facts.”