Senators move to protect special counsel in Russia probe

Robert Mueller
FILE - In this June 21, 2017, file photo, Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after a closed-door meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about Russian meddling in the election at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators introduced two bipartisan bills Thursday aimed at protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Donald Trump as both parties signaled resistance to any White House effort to derail the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.

The similar measures emerged hours before the Senate was planning to begin a summer recess, when some lawmakers have said they fear Trump might remove Mueller. Senators have warned Trump not to dismiss Mueller, and lawmakers were hoping the bills’ release would communicate clear congressional opposition to such a move.

One plan by Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., would let any special counsel for the Department of Justice challenge his or her removal in court. A three-judge panel would review the dismissal within 14 days of the challenge.

The measure would apply retroactively to this past May 17. That is the day Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to investigate allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign.

The other legislation was proposed by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. It would prevent the firing of any special counsel unless the dismissal was first reviewed by a panel of three federal judges.

Coons told reporters that the two plans were introduced after lawyers differed over which mechanism might be more vulnerable to a legal challenge. He said he hopes lawmakers will coalesce around a consensus measure in the coming weeks.

“Mueller enjoys wide support in the Senate” from both parties, Coons said. He said the bills reflected “our level of concern that the president may take some abrupt action in coming months” against the special counsel and the investigation.

“This is something that lives long beyond this” situation involving Mueller, Tillis told reporters. “And I think it’s also something that begins to re-establish the reputation for independence in the Department of Justice.”

Tillis was among many GOP senators who defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions after Trump criticized him for recusing himself from Russia probe. Trump has threatened to fire Sessions, a former Alabama senator.

“So this is really woven into a series of things that I think we should do to help re-establish the solid reputation of DOJ,” Tillis said.

Mueller was appointed as special counsel following Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey. Mueller, who was Comey’s predecessor as FBI director, has assembled a team of prosecutors and lawyers with experience in financial fraud, national security and organized crime to investigate contacts between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Trump has been critical of Mueller since his appointment. The president’s legal team is looking into potential conflicts surrounding the team Mueller has hired, including the backgrounds of members and political contributions by some members of his team to Hillary Clinton. He has also publicly warned Mueller that he would be out of bounds if he dug into the Trump family’s finances.

Graham said last week that firing Mueller “would precipitate a firestorm that would be unprecedented in proportions.”

Tillis, Coons and Graham are all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Panel chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has yet to signal support for either measure.

The Tillis and Coons bill would allow review after the special counsel had been dismissed. If the panel found there was no good cause for the removal, the counsel would be immediately reinstated. The legislation would codify existing Justice Department regulations that a special counsel can only be removed for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest or other good cause, such as a violation of departmental policies.

In addition, only the attorney general or the most senior Justice Department official in charge of the matter could fire the special counsel.

The measure by Graham and Booker allows a special counsel’s removal only after a court finding of “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause” including Justice Department policies.

In the case of the current investigation, Rosenstein is charged with Mueller’s fate because Sessions recused himself from all matters having to do with the Trump-Russia investigation.