WASHINGTON ― Nearly every member of the Senate Democratic caucus took their seats on the Senate floor Wednesday morning to protest President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, and to demand a special prosecutor be named for the bureau’s ongoing Russian probe.
Senators seldom show up for morning remarks by the leaders, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) requested the presence of as many members as possible to show concern over the president firing an FBI director who was investigating his campaign and administration because of ties to Russia.
“If there were ever a time that circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is now,” Schumer said.
Shortly before Schumer spoke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denigrated the protests over Comey’s firing as a political stunt, arguing that most Democrats wanted Comey removed when they blamed him for harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election.
“This is what we have now ― our Democratic colleagues complaining about the removal of an FBI director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized,” McConnell said.
He also noted that Democrats effusively praised Rod Rosenstein, the new deputy attorney general, who made the direct recommendation to have Comey removed.
McConnell argued there was no need for an independent probe.
“Two investigations are currently ongoing ― the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of Russian active measures and intelligence activities, and the FBI investigation disclosed by Director Comey,” McConnell said, overlooking the concerns of many ― including some Republicans ― that the firing reminded them of the Nixon era.
He said a new investigation would only impede the current investigations.
“Partisan calls should not delay the considerable work of [the Intelligence Committee],” McConnell said. “Too much is at stake.”
Why was Attorney General Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigations, able to influence the firing of the man conducting the Russia investigation? Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Schumer lacks the power to compel an independent investigation, but he requested that McConnell at least call an all-senator closed or classified briefing, laying out several key questions Democrats would ask.
“Why was Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigations, able to influence the firing of the man conducting the Russia investigation?” Schumer said. Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose his own repeated contacts with Russians.
“Did deputy Attorney General Rosenstein act on his own, or at the direction of his superiors or the White House?” Schumer asked. “Are reports that the president has been searching for a rationale to fire the FBI director for weeks true? Was Director Comey’s investigation making significant progress in a direction that would cause political damage for the White House? Why didn’t the president wait for the inspector general’s investigation into director Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation to conclude before making his decision to fire him? Was this really about something else?”
A spokesman for McConnell was noncommittal about Schumer’s request.
Democrats were also trying another tactic to encourage Republicans to join the push for a special investigation ― slowing down work in committees, a senior Democratic aide said.
Under an obscure Senate rule, senators must grant unanimous consent to hold hearings beyond two hours. Democrats refused to grant that Wednesday, affecting up to 15 hearings. Among them is a session of the Judiciary Committee that is meeting to hold confirmation hearings on Trump’s would-be solicitor general and two assistant attorneys general.
At least one hearing got postponed because of the slowdown.
Schumer took to the floor later Wednesday after Democrats held a caucus meeting to refine their demands. He repeated the request that Sessions and Rosenstein brief senators, and said Comey should testify personally. He also refined the demand for an independent prosecutor, saying that neither Sessions not Rosenstein could be involved, and that a high-ranking career prosecutor at the Department of Justice should choose someone.
This article has been updated with comments from Schumer and with information about some scheduled hearings.