WASHINGTON (CN) – Twenty state attorneys general on Thursday urged Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to oversee the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 election.
The request, made in the form of a letter, comes in response to President Donald Trump’s surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday evening, which the attorneys general claim calls into question the validity of the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The White House has used a memo from Rosenstein, which primarily made the case that Comey should be fired over his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state, as justification for Trump’s surprising move.
But many, including the 20 Democratic attorneys general who signed onto the letter sent on Thursday, have speculated Trump fired Comey because of the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russian influence on the election.
“As chief law enforcement officers of our respective states, we view the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in the middle of his investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election as a violation of the public trust,” the attorneys general wrote in the one-page letter. “As prosecutors committed to the rule of law, we urge you to consider the damage to your democratic system of any attempts by the administration to derail and delegitimize the investigation.”
The letter demands Rosenstein appoint an “independent special counsel” to head up the Russia investigation, echoing calls from Democrats on Capitol Hill that have grown stronger since Comey’s firing.
“Only the appointment of an independent special counsel … with full powers and resources, can begin to restore public confidence,” the attorneys general wrote.
Special counsels, often referred to as special prosecutors, can be appointed by the attorney general or deputy attorney general when a conflict of interest arises in a criminal investigation. The special counsel is not supervised directly by any Justice Department official and can only be removed from office for cause, unlike officials such as Comey who the president can more easily fire.
Republicans have been unwilling to call for such a bold move, with most instead opting to say the current investigations underway in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are sufficient. Sen. John McCain has somwhat straddled both sides, asking for the creation of a special congressional committee focused solely on Russian interference in the election.
The attorneys general who urged Rosenstein to appoint an independent prosecutor are no strangers to fighting Trump, as they all joined in lawsuits against Trump’s executive order blocking immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries.
The group that sent the letter on Thursday includes attorneys general from deep blue states, such as New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and California Attorney General Xavier Bercerra, as well as those from more moderate states, like Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro.
Also on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had invited Rosenstein to brief the full Senate next week.
The invitation comes in response to a request Schumer made for members to meet with Rosenstein, whose memo the White House says led President Donald Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey earlier this week. Schumer said Rosenstein has not yet accepted the invitation, but that it “its very likely” the briefing happens.
“I am glad he has a willingness to come talk to Congress and I hope he’ll accept our bipartisan invitation from Leader McConnell, from me, to brief the entire Senate next week,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Thursday afternoon.
Rosenstein on Thursday met with Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, though the senators said Comey’s firing did not come up during the pre-planned discussion about the parallel investigations the committee and the Justice Department are undertaking into Russian meddling in the election.
Schumer said Rosenstein also offered to meet with him on Thursday, but that he declined in favor of the all-senators briefing that may happen next week. Schumer also said he requested a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions but that McConnell had not extended that invitation.
Though the White House has cast Rosenstein’s memo as the reason for Comey’s dismissal, Trump said in an interview with NBC News on Thursday that he had made the decision to fire Comey before meeting with Rosenstein earlier this week.
Schumer cited the apparent change in timeline from Trump’s comments as further justification for the briefing.
“The need for these briefings is even greater now than it was this morning given what the president said this afternoon,” Schumer said. “The rule of law, the separation of powers and their strength, hallmarks of American democracy, are at stake.”