Bill to Protect Mueller Passes Senate Committee

Special counsel Robert Mueller departs after a June 21, 2017, meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller’s team considers President Donald Trump a subject, not a criminal target, in the wide-ranging Russia investigation. The designation, first reported by The Washington Post and confirmed by The Associated Press, has raised questions about what legal threat Trump personally faces from the special counsel and whether it has any impact on his decision to sit for an interview with prosecutors. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill Thursday that would bar the politically orchestrated removal of current and future special counsels, including Robert Mueller who is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

The bill passed 14-7, winning the favor of all Democrats on the committee as well as four Republicans: Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

While Department of Justice regulations already require good cause to effect the firing of special counsels, Thursday’s bill would codify such requirements. Good-cause justifications for termination including misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity or conflict of interest. The bill would also allow any special counsel who is removed to seek judicial review of their removal within 10 days.

It is unclear whether the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring the bill to the floor for a full Senate vote. A Kentucky Republican, McConnell has previously said he won’t allow a vote on it and does not believe that President Donald Trump would fire special counsel Mueller.

Even without that wrinkle, the bill faces an uphill climb. There is stiff opposition from other Senate Republicans, and it is unclear whether such a measure could pass the House. President Trump is unlikely to sign such a bill as well.

Tillis and Graham, two of the Republicans who voted for the bill Thursay, sponsored it as well, as did Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The bill emerged against mounting pressure from Mueller’s Russia probe, which includes a look at whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian effort to sway the election in Trump’s favor.

Trump, who has consistently denied any collusion with Russia, has repeatedly called the investigation a witch hunt and has publicly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the matter and leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the investigation.

Trump’s public fury against the probe has raised questions about whether he would try to get rid of Mueller, leading a bipartisan chorus of lawmakers to publicly caution the president against doing so.

Rosenstein appointed Mueller as a special counsel last May, not long after President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, who had until then been in charge of the Russia investigation.

Although the White House has recently suggested that the president has the authority to fire Mueller directly, the prevailing wisdom is that he would have to order Rosenstein to do it. Rosenstein has consistently said that no good cause currently exists for fire Mueller.

The bill passed Thursday would shield Mueller, along with future special counsels, from political interference in investigations.

The effort took months of bipartisan wrangling and negotiations after legal experts testified last year that the two initial proposals put forth were unconstitutional. Grassley, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, put forth the final version that the committee voted on Thursday morning.

That version included his amendment, which would require the attorney general to provide a report to Congress when a special counsel is appointed or removed, and when an investigation concludes. In that report, the attorney general must include information about any decisions to expand or contract the scope of an investigation.

Democrats had initially raised concerns about the amendment but nonetheless threw their support behind it Thursday.

“Everybody went to work and worked it out,” Senator Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said ahead of the vote. “This reporting requirement is a compromised way to ensure oversight while inoculating the special counsel from any political interference from Congress or otherwise.”

Though Grassley expressed concerns about whether the bill would ultimately pass constitutional muster if challenged, he said it’s is narrowly tailored so as not to interfere in the progress of an ongoing investigation.

“Transparency, accountability is very much in the public interest,” Grassley said ahead of the vote. “The public’s business ought to be public. … While my constitutional concerns remain, I believe this bill should be considered by the full Senate.”

Graham meanwhile said he feels confident about the bill.

“I think it’s really good policy that will stand the test of time,” he said before the vote.

Graham also expressed his support for the decision by Attorney General Sessions to recuse himself, calling it his only option and noting that he can’t investigate a campaign he was a part of.

“To those who think he made a bad decision, I could not disagree with you more,” Graham said.

Graham also offered his support for Rosenstein: “As far as I’m concerned I think he’s doing a good job.”

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