WASHINGTON — A bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a bill to protect the position of special counsel held by Robert Mueller, sending a message to President Donald Trump not to fire Mueller or end his Russia investigation.
Four Republicans — including the committee chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) — joined Democrats in a 14-7 vote to pass the bill, which sets a legal standard of “good cause” for termination and allows a special counsel to challenge his or her firing in an expedited judicial review.
After committee members debated whether the measure infringed on the president’s constitutional executive authority, Grassley said, “While my constitutional concerns remain, I believe this bill should be considered by the full Senate.”
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposes the bill and said last week, “We will not be having this on the floor of the Senate.” Asked if McConnell had changed his mind after the committee vote, his spokesman referred to that statement.
Before the committee met, Trump discussed the Mueller probe in a phone call with Fox News television show “Fox & Friends.” “I have decided that I won’t be involved” with the Justice Department, he said, adding, “I may change my mind at some point, because what’s going on is a disgrace.”
At the committee session, senators from both parties said it would be “politically disastrous” if Trump fired Mueller and would create “a constitutional crisis.”
After the vote, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said on CNN, “The message ought to be very, very clear: Keep your hands off a criminal investigation. Nobody is above the law.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said McConnell should hold a vote on the bill immediately. “Rather than waiting for a constitutional crisis, the full Senate should act now,” Schumer said.
An alternative measure by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to pass a “sense of the Senate” resolution — which has the effect of expressing the body’s opinion — that Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation and Trump should not fire him failed in a bipartisan 16-5 vote.
Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, made a stark prediction about the measure that did pass: “This bill will not be taken up on the Senate floor. The House will not pass it. The president will not sign it, nor should he.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a sponsor of the bill, said, “It is the responsibility of the supporters of this legislation to build the support it needs for consideration on the floor of the Senate, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to build that support.”
The bill that passed was crafted by Tillis, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) earlier this month as Trump escalated criticism of Mueller and his investigation as it drew closer to Trump’s associates.
The bill would give a special counsel 10 days to seek judicial review of a firing and would codify into law the Justice Department regulations requiring that terminating a special counsel must be for good cause, such as a conflict of interest or incapacity.