WASHINGTON ― Several top Republicans in Congress expressed their support on Sunday for special counsel Robert Mueller following reports that President Donald Trump wanted to fire him, though the party seems to have little appetite for passing legislation that would protect Mueller from such a dismissal.
The New York Times reported that Trump in June ordered the firing of Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the Justice Department’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The president backed off once the White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign, according to the story. Trump has dismissed the article as “fake news.”
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that he had confidence in Mueller but questions about other officials within the FBI and the Justice Department.
“We have an intel committee,” McCarthy said. “It’s their duty and responsibility for oversight. And that’s what’s moving forward and that has raised a great deal amount of questions.”
McCarthy expressed concern that texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who were having an extramarital affair, showed a political bias against Trump. The pair were involved in the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of email as secretary of state and also were part of the early stages of Mueller’s probe.
Republicans have used this talking point to argue that there was an effort to help Clinton within the FBI. In reality, as a HuffPost investigation has found, there’s just no evidence that Page and Strzok were leaking information to undermine Trump.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” warned that any move to interfere with Mueller’s probe would be the end of the Trump presidency.
“I have complete confidence in Mr. Mueller,” Graham said. “All this stuff about the FBI and [the Department of Justice] having a bias against Trump and for Clinton needs to be looked at. But I have never believed it affected Mr. Mueller.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pointed out during a interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump cannot directly fire Mueller. He would have to pressure Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to do the deed.
She said that at a Senate hearing last year she questioned Rosenstein “at length on this issue, and he was adamant that he would never give in to any White House pressure to remove Mr. Mueller.”
Collins gave credence to the report that Trump wanted to fire Mueller, saying the president ”talked with his counsel, who explained to an angry and frustrated president why it was a bad idea, and that was seven months ago. And the White House counsel is still on the job, and Mr. Mueller is still aggressively investigating. And that’s as it should be.”
She added that Trump “would be best served by never discussing the investigation, ever, whether in tweets, except in private conversations with his attorney.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to move forward on legislation making it tougher to fire the special counsel in the wake of the Times report.
One bill, sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), would only allow Mueller to be fired if “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, or conflict of interest” occurred. A second, sponsored by Graham and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), would require an extensive judicial process to remove a special counsel.
On Sunday, Collins said “it probably wouldn’t hurt” to pass a bill making it almost impossible to remove Mueller. This is a reversal from her original position on the bills.
“There are some constitutional issues with those bills,” she said. “But it would certainly not hurt to put that extra safeguard in place, given the latest stories. But again, I have faith in the deputy attorney general that he’s going to do what he told me he would do.”
Graham, who started pushing his bill in August, doubled down on it on Sunday.
“It would be good to have legislation protecting all special counsels,” he said.
There remains little sign, though, that the pending bills will advance out of the Judiciary Committee.
Graham added that there should be counsels looking into how the DOJ and the FBI handled the Clinton email investigation, as well as the early stages of the Russian probe.
“The text messages between the two FBI agents don’t show political leaning, they show a political bias. I’ve seen a lot of conflicts of interest,” he said.
McCarthy split from his colleagues on the special counsel bills, meaning any such legislation would face tough sledding in the House.
“I don’t think there’s a need for legislation right now to protect Mueller,” he said. “So we’re raising an issue that’s not [needed].”
McCarthy called on Congress to instead “focus on the budget, because the military needs [its] funding. Why are we playing other games with something else?”
This story has been updated with more detail on the legislative efforts to protect Mueller from any push to remove him as special counsel.