Democrats are making a fresh push to defend special counsel Robert Mueller as conservatives escalate their political assault on the Russia investigator.
President Donald Trump’s allies in recent days have renewed their attacks on Mueller amid reports that a top deputy traded anti-Trump texts over the summer, evidence of what they claim is a festering bias. Several news organizations also reported Tuesday that Mueller had subpoenaed records about Trump’s finances from Deutsche Bank, potentially delving into an area that Trump has said could lead him to fire the special counsel. And the conservative legal group Judicial Watch released an email Tuesday from another Mueller prosecutor that it said showed evidence of Trump animus.
The developments are raising new alarms among Democrats that Trump could follow through on his past flirtation with firing Mueller, although Republicans say they don’t see a pressing need to protect the special counsel.
Senators said Monday that bipartisan talks are continuing around combining two bills that would shield Mueller from such a move. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on both proposals in September, although Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has declined to indicate whether he would support a merged version.
That isn’t stopping Democrats from calling for quick action.
Moving forward on the Mueller-protection bills is an “absolutely necessary” step after the guilty plea by Michael Flynn, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “They need to be combined into one, and I think we have bipartisan agreement about it.”
Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of the stronger of the two Mueller-shielding bills, from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), which would require the attorney general to seek a federal court’s approval before removing a special counsel. Booker said Tuesday that he is “having great bipartisan conversations” with Graham as well as Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), whose version of the legislation would allow Mueller to seek judicial review of a firing after it occurs.
“I feel a sense of urgency to do this — not just for this moment in history, but to create more checks and balances within the system as a whole,” Booker told reporters.
Trump himself steered clear of personal attacks on Mueller in a weekend flurry of tweets about his former national security adviser Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with the Russian ambassador. But Trump did refer in one tweet to what he called an “anti-Trump FBI agent,” an apparent reference to Peter Strzok, whom Mueller removed from his team earlier this year after learning of text messages Strzok sent to an FBI colleague that were critical of Trump.
Flynn’s plea has also intensified a campaign by conservative critics of Mueller to undermine what they call an anti-Trump witch hunt. On Tuesday, Judicial Watch released FBI emails it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, including one in which a Mueller deputy, Andrew Weissman, praised his then-boss, acting FBI Director Sally Yates, for her refusal to enforce Trump’s executive order imposing sweeping travel restrictions in January. “I am so proud. And in awe. Thank you so much,” Weissman wrote to Yates.
“How much more evidence do we need that the Mueller operation has been irredeemably compromised by anti-Trump partisans? Shut it down,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement.
Democrats scoffed at the idea that Weissman had exhibited bias even as they redoubled their push for proactive protection of the special counsel.
“We should make certain the integrity of the special counsel is protected,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters.
It’s not that Republicans are “not interested” in the Mueller-protection bills, Durbin added, since they are bipartisan. “I just don’t think they’ll join us in having a timely markup on these bills.”
Tillis said he doesn’t sense any hurry to get the measure passed.
“I don’t see any heightened kind of urgency, if you’re talking about some of the reports around Flynn and others,” he said. “I don’t see any great risk.”
Tillis also raised no alarms about reports that Mueller had subpoenaed Trump’s financial records from Deutsche Bank — a report that Trump’s legal team and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders vehemently denied on Tuesday.
Initial reports raised questions about whether Mueller had crossed a red line that Trump seemed to set in a July interview with The New York Times, in which he seemed to suggest he might fire the special counsel over any effort to probe his personal or family finances.
“We’ll just have to see how that process goes. I don’t have any comment on it at this point,” he said.
The House Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, on Monday urged the committee’s GOP leaders to “join the bipartisan legislation to protect special counsel Mueller’s investigation against a political firing by President Trump or defunding by the GOP.” Aides to Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the judiciary panel’s chairman, did not respond to a request for comment.
Grassley said Tuesday that he has told Coons he wants to see “questions on constitutionality answered” before any further steps are taken on the Mueller-protection bills, adding that he’s still waiting for the two versions of the bills to be merged.
“There’s no sense of us even talking about it until they iron out their differences,” Grassley told reporters.
Blumenthal, for his part, suggested that combining the bills would be an easy task: “There’s a strong feeling that we will succeed in combining them. They’re not that different.”
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have been more hostile toward Mueller’s investigation. Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) have become vocal Mueller critics, with Gaetz warning in recent days that Mueller’s activity could amount to a “coup d’etat” against the president.
Other House Judiciary Committee Republicans have raised questions about Mueller’s probe in light of the recent revelations. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), for example, said he thinks Mueller’s investigation should be limited to considering only evidence directly connected to Russia.
“I do think there ought to be limits,” he said. “I think the limits should be direct ties to Russia, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to look into the business dealings of the family.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he intends to press Trump’s newly appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray about the revelations that Strzok had exchanged anti-Trump text messages with a colleague. Both were removed from their posts in the Mueller investigation over the summer.
“We’re going to be asking him how they can successfully vet out people with malicious prejudice, which they apparently have a case of,” he said.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who’s leading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, said he thinks Mueller “was a bit tone-deaf when he put his team together to hire only folks that had histories of supporting Democrats.
“He should’ve done a more balanced approach,” Conaway said, echoing complaints of Trump allies who have argued the investigators are too tilted against Trump. But he noted that Mueller demoted Strzok. He said he thinks Mueller “is somebody who if he had a second chance would not have put him on the team.”
“Other than the guy that’s been demoted, there’s no evidence that any of his team has been biased,” he said. “I just think from a public appearance standpoint – you don’t help yourself.”
Conaway added that he doesn’t think the investigation is necessarily tainted by the revelations.
“There’s no way to know that. The optics are there. There’s no way to know the impact it’s had on the investigation,” he said. “[Mueller’s] a savvy guy. He understands the public relations issue he’s created with this circumstance. Now the guy that got demoted is going to make his problems even worse. I think we’ll let Mueller do what he does.”
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