Congressional Republicans sounded alarm Sunday over President Donald Trump’s increasing belligerence toward special counsel Robert Mueller, but they offered no hint about what actions they might take if Trump attempts to fire him.
“I’m not sure the House can do a lot,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) on “Fox News Sunday.” Gowdy urged the president to give Mueller the space and resources to finish his probe unimpeded, but he noted that the Senate has more leverage over Trump on this issue because it has a say in his senior administration appointments.
Trump had for months laid off Mueller, who is probing any criminal activity connected to Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election — and whether any Trump associates aided the foreign plot. Though he’s attacked senior leaders of the FBI and Justice Department for drawing out a “witch hunt” against him, Trump has kept his criticism of Mueller’s probe to a minimum, adopting a legal strategy that a public posture of cooperation with Mueller is the right course.
But that strategy shifted abruptly in the last few days, following news that Mueller had subpoenaed the Trump organization for records. This weekend, Trump has tweeted that Mueller’s investigation is unnecessary and is being run by “hardened Democrats.”
Republicans who have helped run their own Russia investigations warned Trump against taking any action on Mueller but stopped short of proposing any efforts to block such a move. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said any decision by Trump to remove Mueller “would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.”
“[Mueller] is following the evidence where it takes him and I think it’s very important he be allowed to do his job without interference,” Graham said. “And there are many Republicans who share my view.”
But bipartisan legislation intended to block a unilateral move by Trump to remove Mueller has stalled in Congress for months, as Republicans and Democrats have worked to combine competing proposals, and even the sponsors of the legislation have described limited urgency to act. Until this weekend, they pointed to Trump’s deference to Mueller and expressed confidence he wouldn’t go after the veteran prosecutor.
That changed Saturday when Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, called for Mueller to be shut down, arguing that it was contrived by former FBI Director James Comey and based on a dossier provided to the bureau by former British spy Christopher Steele.
“I pray that acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier,” Dowd said.
(The FBI’s investigation began several months before the bureau received Steele’s dossier, according to Republican and Democratic House Intelligence Committee memos drawn from previously classified FBI documents.)
Trump followed Dowd’s comments with multiple attacks on Mueller’s probe as well.
“[D]oes anyone think this is fair?” Trump tweeted. “And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!”
A decision by Trump to fire Mueller could be complex. Technically, the decision falls to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller's probe and he's repeatedly expressed confidence in Mueller. Only Rosenstein has the authority to end it, but Trump has the authority to remove Rosenstein in order to install a more pliant official willing to carry out the order, a move that Trump's detractors fear could come without warning.
Yet if the new tone toward Mueller is going to motivate Republican lawmakers’ to protect the investigation, there were few indications over the weekend. Leaders of the committees charged with overseeing the Justice Department offered no immediate response to Trump’s comments.
On behalf of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), AshLee Strong merely said: : “As the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.”
Their limited responses came despite renewed Democratic pleas for a bipartisan pledge to undo any actions Trump may take against Mueller.
“I would hope that that would be the result that we would affirm our system of checks and balances and appoint an independent counsel,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, on ABC’s “This Week.”
“The president, the administration, and his legal team must not take any steps to curtail, interfere with, or end the special counsel's investigation or there will be severe consequences from both Democrats and Republicans," said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement.
But rather than endorse a specific response, several Republican lawmakers with a history of challenging Trump on Russia-related matters fanned out across the Sunday national news shows and pleaded broadly with Trump to back off Mueller.
“I mean, talking to my colleagues all along, it was, you know, once he goes after Mueller, then we will take action,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think that people see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed. So, I hope that that's the case. And I would just hope that enough people would prevail on the president now: ‘Don't go there.‘”
In his tirades against the investigations, Trump has latched onto a recent finding by House Intelligence Committee Republicans that they found no evidence that Trump’s campaign had colluded with Russia to influence the election.
“As the House Intelligence Committee has concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign,” he tweeted Saturday.
But two prominent members of the committee contradicted this assessment Sunday, noting that some of the central figures in the investigation have been off-limits to the committee because they’re entangled in Mueller’s probe. Those witnesses include former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, whose interactions with a Russian-linked professor helped launch the FBI’s initial Russia probe.
Gowdy emphasized that the panel’s conclusion was only limited to the 70-plus witnesses they were able to reach.
“You don’t know what you don’t know," he said.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who ran the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation, emphasized that the committee didn’t conclude there was no collusion.
"What we said is that we found no evidence of it,” he clarified. “That's a different statement."
Others pleaded with the president to recognize that Mueller’s probe goes beyond questions about collusion and to the heart of Russia’s larger, widely accepted plot to influence the election.
“It is not a collusion probe. It is much broader than that,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “Now, obviously, once you open that up and you start looking you can go in one direction or another. You go where the evidence takes you and that's what I support.”