Republican senators are growing less certain by the day that President Donald Trump won’t fire Robert Mueller — and there are increasing signs some are willing to do something about it.
After months of GOP insistence that Trump would not axe Mueller, a big crack in the resistance to even the idea of a firing — let alone action to prevent it — came Wednesday, when Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined two Democrats to unveil a bill allowing the special counsel to challenge any termination in court. And now Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has surprisingly agreed to put it to a vote.
But they’re not the only Republicans open to sending a warning shot in Trump’s direction.
Interviews with more than a dozen GOP senators on Wednesday found eight senators either already backing or considering support for the effort to shield Mueller, as the Russia probe heads steadily deeper into Trump’s inner circle and the president grows ever angrier.
The bill could come up for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee as soon as next week, and though several senators believe the bill needs tweaks, the change in tone among Republicans was unmistakable.
“It’s something I would certainly consider,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “Sure just wish we weren’t in this place in the first place.”
Asked if she trusts that Trump wouldn’t fire Mueller at this point, she replied: “No. I don’t.”
Other Republicans who said Wednesday that they would consider legislation aimed at shielding Mueller’s job include Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Tillis said in an interview he is increasingly confident that the bill would clear the Judiciary panel. But he didn’t want to get ahead of himself despite the swing in momentum.
“The prospects of a markup and a vote in committee are probably pretty good. And then we have to figure out where it goes in the chamber,” Tillis said. “But really there’s no sense in gaming that out until we can see if we can vote this out of committee.”
Many Republicans, however, are still unwilling to entertain the proposal, and GOP leaders are already moving to tamp down support for the bill — underscoring a growing split within the party over whether to try to stop Trump from sparking what would likely be a constitutional crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans have told senators they believe the bill would be subjected to constitutional review, according to one member of the conference.
“I don’t think we need it,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told reporters Wednesday, echoing his leadership’s constitutional concerns.
Flake, a frequent Trump critic, has also raised questions about the bill’s vulnerability to a court challenge. “I’ve had my legal beagles look at this six ways to Sunday to try to find a way that you could” get around a president's constitutional power over personnel, he said.
“I haven’t found it,” Flake added. “I’d gladly sign on, if I come to that conclusion.”
Flake is unlikely to co-sponsor the resolution, but wouldn’t rule out voting for it in committee.
Grassley also came closer to supporting it Wednesday. The Iowa Republican asked his committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, to agree to add the special counsel bill to their agenda for Thursday, though Feinstein has yet to give her consent out of concern that the legislation might get watered down.
But the biggest hurdle to the proposal remains GOP leadership’s resistance, not to mention the political pressure to stick by its president ahead of a likely-brutal midterm election.
Indeed, Republican senators avoided the issue during a Wednesday party lunch, according to attendees.
Party leaders acknowledged there is a growing and uncomfortable split in the conference.
"There’s no need for it at the moment. But you know we have some of our members who believe otherwise," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a GOP leadership member.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said that “I don’t see any serious indication that that’s going to happen, a firing. So I get where my colleagues are coming from and I understand their concerns but I’m not sure that kind of legislation is going to move.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), whose panel is still running its own investigation of connections between Trump’s team and Russia, broke from the White House’s view to assert that the president lacks the power to fire Mueller.
“That’s a decision they have to make,” Burr said of firing Mueller in a brief interview, making clear that he would be against the move. “But you can’t fire Bob Mueller. He can fire people who can fire Bob Mueller, but the president can’t fire him.”
One day after saying Trump “certainly believes” he can fire Mueller, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday that there is no formal position on legislation protecting the special counsel. But few members of either party are under any illusions about the likelihood Trump would actually sign the bipartisan Senate bill, which would allow any special counsel 10 days to request fast-track judicial review of a termination.
Even so, Democrats were largely heartened by Grassley’s decision to advance the Mueller bill.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has long pushed the Judiciary chairman to move faster on the committee’s own Russia probe, said that “it would be unreasonable” for Republicans “not to take seriously such a long series of presidential threats” to the special counsel’s job.
And some in Trump’s own party kept warning him to let Mueller keep working, in the starkest of terms.
“If you want to see what touching the sun feels like, then get rid of Bob Mueller,” said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, head of the GOP conference’s campaign arm, who didn’t address whether he would consider backing the Mueller protection bill.
Corker said that a Trump move against Mueller would “end his presidency as he knows it,” and that Trump hasn’t fully digested the gravity of a possible firing.
“I don’t think he understands how vehemently people would respond to that,” Corker told reporters. “Because we have faith in Mueller. We do not believe he is corrupt.”