WASHINGTON ― A bipartisan effort in the Senate to send a more unified message in support of special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into Russia’s election meddling fell apart last month as lawmakers bolted for the recent two-week congressional recess.
When Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) issued a statement seemingly out of nowhere in late March urging President Donald Trump to allow Mueller to “complete his work without impediment,” it took many by surprise. The timing of the statement ― during a sleepy recess week and in the wake of Trump’s pointed attacks against Mueller earlier in the month ― led some to speculate that the special counsel’s job could be in peril.
“Something is going on...,” tweeted Zac Petkanas, a former staffer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, in response to the senators’ statement.
Trump did not act against Mueller that week, but something was going on behind the scenes in the Senate.
Tillis and Coons, who have introduced a bill that would limit the president’s ability to fire Mueller, were each working to get more lawmakers from their own caucuses to sign on to the statement in hopes of sending the White House a stronger message in defense of the Mueller probe. They decided to settle for their own joint statement, however, after they couldn’t reach agreement with a broader group of senators on the final language before Congress adjourned in the last week of March.
“Bluntly, there were a lot of members who were just pretty cranky at that point because it was very late at night,” Coons recalled on Tuesday. “We were about to head out. I had members say, ‘I’m not looking at that now,’ not because of the substance but because it was midnight.”
Coons said that he and Tillis wanted to gather a “broad representative group” to sign the statement and that timing had simply been an impediment to doing so.
“We have not in the last two weeks continued to circulate [the letter],” Coons said, adding that he planned to discuss with Tillis their next steps forward.
Multiple GOP lawmakers on Tuesday said that additional protections aren’t necessary for the Russia probe, even after the president appeared to float the idea of firing Mueller on Monday.
“Why don’t I just fire Mueller?” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question. “Well, I think it’s a disgrace what’s going on. We’ll see what happens, but I think it’s really a sad situation. ... Many people have said you should fire him. Again, they found nothing, and in finding nothing, that’s a big statement.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he did not believe additional legislative protections for Mueller were needed because the president was simply “expressing his frustration” with FBI agents who raided the office of his personal lawyer.
“It’s more intense now than it was before and with good reason,” Rounds said. “I think he’s frustrated with the fact ― you can imagine how you would feel if it was your personal attorney having his office raided? So he has a fair reason to be frustrated. But I still think the same approach of not firing Mr. Mueller is still the appropriate approach.”
But at least one other GOP senator disagreed.
“If there’s legislation that’s moving, that’s appropriate, I would sign on to it,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “I don’t see that occurring, but I’m more than glad to sign on to appropriate legislation.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who is retiring at the end of the year, also hinted that he might have been willing to sign the Coons-Tillis joint statement concerning Mueller in March.
“I think recently there was an attempt to send a letter over [to the White House], and I was OK with that, too,” Corker said. “So, it’s not [in my committee’s jurisdiction], but I am more than glad to sign on to reasonable legislation to protect Mueller.”