In times of trouble, President Trump has a habit of saying something that makes his situation even worse, such as when he explained his revised travel ban was just a “watered-down version” of the order the courts blocked, or when he declared on national television that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
The latest example is Trump telling the New York Times last month that any investigation of his family’s finances by Special Counsel Robert Mueller would cross a line, then repeatedly suggesting that he was on the verge of firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions because he recused himself from the Russia probe. (Decisions on Russia-related matters fell to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who then appointed Mueller.) Reports that Mueller recently impaneled a federal grand jury in Washington suggest Trump’s threats had no effect on him. (CNN reported on Thursday that Mueller’s investigation has “widened to focus on possible financial crimes, some unconnected to the 2016 elections.”) Trump signaling that he wants an attorney general willing to fire Mueller may have actually backfired, as lawmakers from both parties are now looking for ways to protect the special counsel.
Before leaving for their summer break on Thursday, the Senate made a procedural move that will prevent Trump from replacing Sessions via a recess appointment. The maneuver, which was also used against President Obama, involves scheduling extremely brief meetings so technically the Senate will be in session every three days through the break.
Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, previously let it be known that if Sessions is fired, there will be no confirmation hearing for his replacement this year.
On Thursday, two pairs of senators – Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Cory Booker, as well as Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat Christopher Coons – unveiled legislation that would prevent President Trump from firing Mueller without cause. As the Washington Post reports, the senators have different ideas about what should happen if a special counsel is fired:
Graham and Booker’s proposal, which also has backing from Judiciary Committee Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), would require the judges panel to review any attorney general’s decision to fire a special counsel before that firing could take effect. Tillis and Coons’ proposal would let the firing proceed according to current regulations, which they codify in the bill — but the fired special counsel would have the right to contest the administration’s decision in court. In that scenario, the judges panel would have two weeks from the day the special counsel’s case is filed to complete their review and determine whether the termination was acceptable.
Senators from both teams suggested that they’ll combine their legislation after the break. “I think we maybe can have a meeting of the minds. I really appreciate them doing it,” Graham said of Tillis and Coons’s bill. “I just have a different way of doing it.”
In a previous iteration of Mueller’s job, a three-judge panel had the ability to appoint an independent counsel. (Congress let that post-Watergate law expire in 1999 after special prosecutors caused scandals for presidents from both parties.) The current law gives the attorney general – and thus the president who appoints him or her – much broader authority over the special counsel. “This is the first step to put a speed bump in place against [Mueller’s] improvident firing,” Coons explained.
The senators said they believe the bill could pass because more Republicans have been standing up to Trump recently. While Trump has been pushing the idea that Mueller’s team is rife with conflicts of interest, members of both parties praised the former FBI director for his integrity. And Republican lawmakers responded to Trump’s attacks on Sessions by rallying around the attorney general.
Coons said there is “a broader bipartisan concern that the president may take inappropriate action to interfere with the ongoing, important work of Bob Mueller,” and predicted that “if the president were to fire the special counsel, the Senate might promptly take action to reappoint him.”
Even if the Senate did pass a new rule on firing the special counsel, it’s unclear if the House would do the same – or if there would be enough support to override a potential veto by the president.
Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat, told CNN that he doesn’t expect the legislation to be enacted, but “the real clear message to [Trump] is don’t do this, don’t go there.” “Its symbolic,” Carper said. “But is an important symbol. It’s a bipartisan symbol.”
It doesn’t seem like Trump is listening to messages from his own legal team, let alone a handful of senators – but hey, it’s worth a try.