Mueller probe: Senate rejects expedited vote on bill to protect special counsel
WASHINGTON – The Senate refused Wednesday to allow an expedited vote on legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., urged brisk debate on the legislation in an effort to prevent President Donald Trump from firing Mueller. Trump has called the probe a “witch hunt.”
Flake asked for unanimous consent to bring up the bill for a vote because he argued that Trump sought to sow doubt about and curtail Mueller’s investigation.
“With the firing of the attorney general and, in my view, the improper installation of an acting attorney general, who has not been subject to confirmation by this body, the president now has this investigation in his sights, and we all know it,” Flake said.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., objected to the request, so it was rejected.
McConnell had told reporters earlier Wednesday that there was no need for the legislation because the probe is in “no danger” and Trump hasn’t proposed to end it.
“I don’t think any legislation is necessary,” McConnell said. “We know how the president feels about the Mueller investigation, but he’s never said he wants to shut it down.”
Flake said he would oppose consideration of dozens of Trump’s judicial nominees until the bill gets a vote.
The bill gained urgency Nov. 7, when Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing Mueller. Trump named Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general.
Whitaker’s appointment drew fire because he sharply criticized the investigation and suggested it could be defunded before he joined the Justice Department a year ago.
Two Republican former U.S. attorneys general – Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales – questioned the propriety of the appointment because Whitaker hadn’t been serving in a Senate-confirmed position.
But the department’s Office of Legal Counsel released a 20-page opinion Wednesday that said Whitaker is “unquestionably” authorized to take the post because he had served in a top job for more than a year.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill in April, 14 to 7. The bill would:
- codify Justice Department regulations to ensure a special counsel can be fired only for good cause by a Senate-confirmed official of the department, with the reason provided in writing,
- provide the special counsel a 10-day window to seek expedited judicial review of his removal, and
- preserve staffing, documents and other materials of the investigation while the firing is debated.
Coons said on MSNBC Tuesday that “Whitaker strikes me as a clear and present danger to the independence of the special counsel.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the committee to hold a hearing on Whitaker “to ensure that he will take no action to restrict or otherwise interfere” with Mueller’s work.
Contributing: Cat Hofacker.
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