GOP leaders warn Trump not to fire special counsel

Mr Robert Mueller has been conducting an expanding investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Mr Robert Mueller has been conducting an expanding investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

WASHINGTON • Senate Republican leaders have sharply warned President Donald Trump not to fire Mr Robert Mueller, but they once again stopped short of embracing legislation to protect the special counsel.

Their reluctance to take more forceful action came as Democratic leaders voiced new urgency to shield Mr Mueller, after Mr Trump said he had been encouraged by some to dismiss the special counsel. At least one rank-and-file Republican endorsed moving forward soon with a Bill to protect him.

But Senate GOP leaders on Tuesday were not budging from their position against taking preventive action, underscoring the downside they have long seen in being too confrontational against the leader of their party.

Even at moments of great uncertainty about what Mr Trump will do next, congressional Republican leaders have opted not to further agitate him.

"I haven't seen clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed, because I don't think that's going to happen," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley issued Mr Trump a sharper warning, saying on Fox Business Network that it would be "suicide for the President to want, to talk about firing Mueller".

Mr Grassley refused to consider a pair of Bills released last year to protect the special counsel before they were merged into one. A combined Bill that a bipartisan group of senators has been working on would institute a 10-day delay before any order from a top Justice Department official to fire a special counsel could take effect, according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the legislation.

The ousted special counsel would have those 10 days to appeal against the decision to a three-judge panel before the process is completed. The Bill would also require all staff and documents be preserved during that window.

Senator Thom Tillis, who co-sponsored one of the Bills, said he supported bringing up legislation in the Judiciary Committee.

However, he did not embrace the urgency of his Democratic colleagues, who have tied it to Mr Trump's escalated rhetoric and the raid on the office, home and hotel room of Mr Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

"I want to separate me continuing to have the dialogue and get to a Bill from, like, 'It's gotta be passed by midnight tomorrow, or all is lost.' I don't buy that," said Mr Tillis, who added that a Bill could potentially be brought up as soon as "the next couple of weeks".

Mr Mueller and Mr Trump became major topics of conversation on Capitol Hill the day after the FBI's seizure of privileged communications between Mr Trump and Mr Cohen, as well as documents related to a US$130,000 (S$179,000) payment to Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who has alleged that she had a sexual affair with Mr Trump a decade ago.

"I think it's a disgrace what's going on. We'll see what happens," Mr Trump said on Monday, after reports of the raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Speaking of Mr Mueller and himself, Mr Trump said: "Many people have said 'you should fire him'."

The FBI raid of Mr Cohen's office was part of an investigation referred by Mr Mueller to federal prosecutors in New York. Mr Mueller has been conducting an expanding investigation into Russia's interference in the US 2016 presidential election.

At the Justice Department, it is the responsibility of Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein to decide whether to expand Mr Mueller's mandate to include a new topic or to refer it to a US attorney's office.

"He'd (Mr Trump) have to fire Rosenstein first," said Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. "I'm not worried."

But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday that Mr Trump "certainly believes he has the power" to fire Mr Mueller.

Mr Rosenstein, who is supervising Mr Mueller's investigation after Attorney-General Jeff Sessions recused himself, has said that only he can fire Mr Mueller, and only for cause. He has repeatedly backed the special counsel, and signed off on the raid of Mr Cohen's properties, a person familiar with the matter said.

Even some Republicans who have been willing to criticise Mr Trump tried to tamp down the fallout from his remarks. Senator Susan Collins said she remained confident that Mr Rosenstein would not take steps to fire Mr Mueller.

"If the President were to fire the Deputy Attorney-General, that would be an extraordinary crisis and a real problem," she said. "And I just don't think he's going to do it."

WASHINGTON POST, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2018, with the headline 'GOP leaders warn Trump not to fire special counsel'. Print Edition | Subscribe