Legislation to make it harder for President Donald Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller found little momentum Friday, despite reports Trump attempted to remove the man investigating his campaign's contacts with Russia last year.
Democrats described new urgency to protect Mueller after news that Trump ordered top White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire the special counsel, who is also investigating whether Trump has attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation. But the Republicans who control Congress kept mostly silent about the prospect of another attempted Mueller firing — and about the future of two bipartisan bills designed to prevent it.
There's no rush, Republicans say, because they don't see an ongoing threat by Trump to fire Mueller. Since July, when Trump tapped attorney Ty Cobb to help guide his legal strategy, the famously impulsive president has taken a more conciliatory approach to the probe and has repeatedly expressed a hope and belief that Mueller will treat him fairly.
As a result, Republican senators met Thursday's reports with a collective shrug. Aides say they're still in talks about combining Mueller-protection bills — one from Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), and another from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). But the GOP posture hasn't changed since last fall, when they argued there was no need to expedite the bills because there was no urgent threat to Mueller.
Tillis spokesman Dan Keylin noted that the Mueller firing reports, which portray Trump backing down after McGahn threatened to quit, date back to June — two months before the bipartisan special counsel protection bills were introduced.
"Since the introduction of the two bipartisan bills, the chatter that the administration is considering removing Special Counsel Mueller has completely come to a halt," Keylin said by email. "In fact, the president and his administration have spoken favorably of Special Counsel Mueller’s professionalism and integrity, and recent reports indicate the investigation may soon come to an end."
Tillis continues to support his Mueller-protection bill as "a commonsense solution to ensure the independence of present and future special counsel investigations," Keylin added, and the special counsel "should be able to do his job without elected officials trying to score cheap political points."
Staff for the four senators have reached a broad agreement about how to combine the two Mueller-protection bills, according to one source familiar with the talks, but the lawmakers themselves have yet to sign off. Tillis and Coons' proposal would allow a special counsel to challenge a firing after the fact, while Graham and Booker's measure would provide protection before a potential firing.
Keylin said that the gap between the two bills "can be reconciled," but noted that "there are still two challenges moving forward: addressing the constitutionality concerns raised by some members and garnering the support needed to actually move a bill in Congress, which it currently does not have."
Democrats were less at ease — and continued to clamor for quick action on Capitol Hill.
Coons called the reports of Trump's aborted firing of Mueller "profoundly disturbing," adding in a statement that they "make clear we need to act" on legislation shielding the special counsel. Booker fired off his own statement declaring that legislation was "urgently needed" last summer, "and it's urgently needed now."
Trump brought up the Mueller-protection bill during a conversation with Tillis in August, a month that saw the president clash repeatedly with other Republican senators, and indicated that he did not want it to pass. But since then, the president has developed somewhat more harmony with the Senate GOP since then, particularly after the December passage of a sweeping tax-cut package.
It's unclear what, if any, new development would leave Senate Republicans willing to cross the president by advancing the Mueller-protection bills.
"Republicans have told us privately for months that there's no way Trump would fire Mueller, so we don't need to pass any legislation to protect the special counsel," one Democratic aide said. "What's their excuse now?"
One source tracking the talks said there is still more than enough room for the Senate to act on a bipartisan basis in defense of Mueller, "if people are willing to do publicly what they say privately."
Efforts to protect Mueller in the House have found even less GOP support.
Though Democrats have repeatedly urged action on the matter — holding press conferences and filing legislation — Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have shown little interest in moving a bill.
Instead, GOP lawmakers have escalated efforts to highlight what they say is misconduct by some FBI agents involved in the FBI and Mueller probes. Earlier this week, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) described a "conspiracy" inside the FBI but declined to provide details.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) was one of only a few House Republicans to immediately respond to Thursday's news with a call for the president to lay off Mueller.
"Any effort to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with our elections is unacceptable," he tweeted.
House Democrats, meanwhile, teed off on the news. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called the news part of a "grave pattern," and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said lawmakers need to assert themselves to prevent a crisis.
"Congress must make clear that any effort to remove the Special Counsel or impede his work would touch off a constitutional crisis which would imperil this Presidency and do grave damage to our nation," Schiff said in a statement.