Republican Lawmakers Say Mueller Needs No Protection

Mar 20, 2018
Originally published on March 20, 2018 10:00 pm

Updated at 7:38 p.m. ET

Top Republican lawmakers do not support legislation aimed at protecting Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation from White House interference, insisting that it is unnecessary.

"The special counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference, absolutely," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Tuesday. "I am confident that he'll be able to do that. I have received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration."

The speaker did not say who has offered him such assurances, but his view is widely held among congressional Republicans that President Trump will not attempt to fire Mueller. Fears of White House meddling were stoked over the weekend after the late Friday firing of outgoing FBI official Andrew McCabe and a series of presidential tweets, some attacking Mueller by name.

Republicans largely downplayed those concerns but, at the same time, offered support for Mueller's investigation.

"I agree with the president's lawyers that Bob Mueller should be allowed to finish his job. I believe it was an excellent appointment, and he should be allowed to go where the facts lead him, " Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters on Tuesday, before adding, "I don't think Bob Mueller is going anywhere."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that the president knows that any effort to end Mueller's investigation could be considered an impeachable offense.

"I can't think of a more upsetting moment in the rule of law to have an investigator looking at a president's campaign as to whether or not they colluded with a foreign government, what kind of crimes may have been committed," Graham said, "I've seen no evidence of collusion, but to stop the investigation without cause, I think, would be a constitutional crisis."

Other top Republicans, including House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have all publicly warned the White House since the weekend to cool it on Mueller. Hatch went so far to say that firing Mueller would be "the stupidest thing" Trump could do.

Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a frequent Trump critic, said it was incumbent upon all Republicans to make it clear that firing Mueller is a red line that can't be crossed. Republicans have generally avoided direct criticism of the president. "If you're going to pick a fight, this is a fight to pick. You've got to pick this fight. If you don't pick this fight, we might as well not be here. This is a serious one," Flake said.

He was less confident than most of his Republican colleagues that Trump can be trusted to leave the special counsel alone. "Just a week ago he said he wasn't firing Tillerson, too. I think pre-emptively it would behoove our leadership to be forceful and say, 'This is a line you cannot cross,' " Flake said.

Later Tuesday, Flake appeared to turn up the volume on his concerns. In an evening tweet, referenced impeachment: "We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel. Don't create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing. Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact, through impeachment. ..." The tweet echoed and crystallized remarks Flake made to the Washington Post.

Congressional leaders are putting the final touches on a $1.3 trillion spending bill that will pass Congress in the coming days. Some Democrats would like to see language included in the must-pass bill to protect Mueller, but GOP leaders have said that is off the table.

Not all Democrats believe legislation is necessary at this time. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters she also believes the president understands how severe the consequences would be if he were to interfere with an independent investigation. "[Mueller] is protected now. He's working independently now," she said, "I don't believe that there is any cause to terminate him and without cause, it becomes political, and that, I think, would rip apart this administration."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Congressional Republicans are making it clear they will not take any steps to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from getting fired. Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Yeah. I just don't think it's necessary. I don't think Bob Mueller is going anywhere.

CHANG: Some lawmakers would like to include legislation to protect Mueller into a must-pass spending bill coming up this week. But Republicans say that is off the table. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now to talk about all this. Hey, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So all right. Most Republicans say they support Mueller's Russia investigation, so what's the resistance to passing legislation to protect the investigation from White House interference?

DAVIS: We hear a pretty familiar posture from congressional Republicans who say they're just not that worried about the things that the president tweets, specifically his criticisms of Mueller over the weekend. This is what House Speaker Paul Ryan had to say today to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: The special counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference. Absolutely. I am confident that he'll be able to do that. I've received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration. We have a system based upon the rule of law in this country. We have a justice system. And no one is above that justice system.

DAVIS: So the speaker echoed Mitch McConnell's confidence, although I should note he did not tell us who gave him these assurances. But White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders today from the White House podium said the president does not have any plans to fire Robert Mueller.

CHANG: Why are Republicans so confident about this? Because just this past weekend, the president stepped up his attacks on the Russia probe, on Mueller himself.

DAVIS: You know, they do brush off the president's tweets on a fairly regular basis up here. I do think the one thing I have heard repeatedly from Republicans is that they think that the White House does understand that the political consequences for President Trump would be severe. Senator Lindsey Graham - he's a Republican from South Carolina. He was on Hugh Hewitt's radio show this morning. And he said if the president were to try and fire Mueller without cause, he would consider that, in his words, an impeachable offense. Here's what he told Hugh Hewitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HUGH HEWITT SHOW")

LINDSEY GRAHAM: I can't think of a more upsetting moment in the rule of law to have a investigator looking at a president's campaign as to whether or not they colluded with a foreign government, what kind of crimes they may have committed. I've seen no evidence of collusion, but to stop the investigation without cause - I think it would be a constitutional crisis.

DAVIS: Graham is not alone in thinking about how severe that would be. Other top Republicans in recent days - people like House oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, Senate foreign relations Chairman Bob Corker and Senate finance Chairman Orrin Hatch have all publicly warned the president to cool it when it comes to Mueller. Orrin Hatch said it would be, in his words, the stupidest thing the president could do - to fire Mueller. One word of caution here - not all Republicans feel this way. Jeff Flake, Republican from Arizona, said, look; you know, the president also gave assurances about not firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. And then he did it and gave Congress very little warning.

CHANG: Yeah. So Republicans are not willing to include any Mueller protections in this must-pass spending bill. How hard are Democrats going to fight that?

DAVIS: It's not that hard right now politically. You know, they're going to say they tried to do it, and Republicans blocked them. And that might be a good enough political win for Democrats at this moment. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did give Mitch McConnell credit for saying that he backs Mueller's investigation and thinks he'll be fine. There are just a lot more pressing policy issues under debate right now before they can unveil what is going to be a $1.3 trillion spending bill for the rest of the year. They're trying to work out details on things affecting health care, potentially on guns and on border security. So we're eagerly awaiting that bill to figure out...

CHANG: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...When Congress is going to vote.

CHANG: Well, government funding runs out on Friday, and they're still not done negotiating. So here we are again.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

CHANG: Your favorite question, Sue - what are the chances of a government shutdown this week?

DAVIS: It doesn't seem like a real threat at this point. If anything, they may have to work into the weekend to make sure they can pass it before their planned two-week Easter recess.

CHANG: That's NPR's Susan Davis. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.