Mueller Protection Bill Wins Bipartisan Support on Senate Panel

(Bloomberg) -- A bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from being fired without cause won bipartisan support from the Senate Judiciary Committee even as the measure’s opponents warned that President Donald Trump could face dire consequences, and possibly impeachment, should he dismiss the prosecutor.

The legislation was approved by the panel 14-7 on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it won’t get a vote on the Senate floor.

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, rejected McConnell’s stance on the legislation. "This bill should be considered by the full Senate," Grassley said. "We took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Under the bill, if special counsels are fired they can appeal the action to a federal court, which could overrule the dismissal for lacking good cause. The committee adopted an amendment from Grassley requiring reports to Congress on special counsels’ activities.

Egged on by some of his strongest supporters, Trump has taken an increasingly combative posture toward Mueller’s investigation since FBI agents raided the home and office of the president’s lawyer Michael Cohen earlier this month. Trump said last week that Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller, “are still here” despite talk that he would fire them over the probe into Russian tampering with the 2016 election, but he has repeatedly called the probe a "witch hunt."

Grassley said Congress’s role is to "effectively check the other branches" and that the bill fulfills that responsibility. Oversight will help Congress "consider whether to resort to the extreme remedy of impeachment," he said.

Not Above the Law

"It’s about ensuring that no one man or woman in our system is above the law," said Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah and the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said the bill is unconstitutional because it takes out of the president’s hands the ability to fire members of the executive branch.

But they and other Republicans warned Trump against firing Mueller, a former FBI director. Hatch said Muller’s dismissal could lead to Trump’s impeachment.

"I think that it would be disastrous for the nation to fire Mueller and it would be politically suicidal for the president," said Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Cornyn said the bill isn’t necessary, won’t be considered on the Senate floor, wouldn’t pass the House and won’t get signed into law.

"The president is not going to fire Director Mueller, I believe, because the repercussions of doing so would be disastrous for his presidency and for the country," he said.

A proposal by Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah to replace the bill with a nonbinding Senate resolution backing Mueller was defeated 15-6.

Earlier Thursday, Trump said he has tried to keep a hands-off approach to the Justice Department during the Mueller probe but that he may change his mind.

‘Witch Hunt’

“They have a witch hunt against the president of the United States going on,” Trump said Thursday on the “Fox & Friends” program. “I’ve taken the position -- and I don’t have to take this position and maybe I’ll change -- that I will not be involved with the Justice Department. I will wait until this is over. It’s a total -- it’s all lies and it’s a horrible thing that’s going on."

“I’m very disappointed in my Justice Department,” he said.

Democrats held out hope that McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, would allow a vote on the legislation after Trump’s comments.

"Given President Trump’s statement just this morning that he may interfere with the special counsel’s investigation, it’s become even more of an imperative that Leader McConnell put this bill on the Senate floor for a vote immediately," said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

Some senators have said the measure could become an insurance policy -- and perhaps the starting point for a congressional response -- if Trump defies their advice and acts to fire Mueller.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.