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GOP leaders say Trump won't fire special counsel Robert Mueller

| Tuesday, March 20, 2018, 7:48 p.m.
GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., expressed confidence that special counsel Robert Mueller III will be able to finish his Russia investigation unimpeded.
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GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., expressed confidence that special counsel Robert Mueller III will be able to finish his Russia investigation unimpeded.
GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed confidence that special counsel Robert Mueller III will be able to finish his Russia investigation unimpeded.
Getty Images
GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed confidence that special counsel Robert Mueller III will be able to finish his Russia investigation unimpeded.

WASHINGTON — Top Republican leaders on Capitol Hill expressed confidence Tuesday that special counsel Robert Mueller III will be able to finish his Russia investigation unimpeded, despite President Trump's recent attacks on the probe.

The remarks from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were made after Trump leveled the most direct criticism of Mueller and the credibility of his investigation — a dramatic move by the president that has nonetheless done little to make GOP lawmakers fret publicly that the special counsel could soon be dismissed.

In a news conference Tuesday morning, Ryan said he has been assured that Mueller's firing is not being discussed, although he declined to elaborate on who provided that assurance.

“Look, first of all, the special counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference, absolutely. I am confident he will be able to do that,” he said. “I have received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration. We have a system based upon rule of law in this country. We have a justice system, and no one is above that justice system.”

McConnell was equally confident when he addressed reporters Tuesday afternoon.

“I think it was an excellent appointment,” McConnell said of Mueller. “I think he will go wherever the facts lead him, and I think he will have great credibility with the American people when he reaches the conclusion of this investigation.”

That show of public confidence from the highest tiers of GOP leadership — reflected down to the rank-and-file —showed how Trump's latest and most aggressive attack on the special counsel's ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 elections was likely to pass with little substantive pushback from Capitol Hill.

Republicans continue to say they do not believe Trump would take steps to dismiss Mueller despite his rhetoric because doing so would be catastrophic. One member who has spoken directly to Trump in recent days — House Freedom Caucus Mark Meadows, R-N.C., — says the president is largely venting frustration but has no plans to take steps to oust the special counsel.

White House officials continue to say there is no plan to fire Mueller even though Trump believes the investigation is a waste of time.

“Look, the president has been very clear about the fact that there was no collusion between his campaign and any other entity,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “However, to pretend like going through this absurd process for over a year would not bring frustration seems a little bit ridiculous.”

There have some exceptions among congressional Republicans who have largely tried to ignore or downplay Trump's attacks on the investigation. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Tuesday he has relayed to White House officials, whom he declined to identify, a plea: Dissuade the president from taking action against Mueller.

“I don't know that that matters,” Flake said Tuesday. “He's going to do what he's going to do. Obviously, those on staff aren't encouraging him to fire Mueller. This will be his thing, but he seems to be closer to it than ever.”

Flake, one of Trump's most prominent critics, said he would support impeachment proceedings against Trump if the president ends the investigation “without cause.”

“We're begging him, ‘Don't go down this road. Don't create a constitutional crisis. Don't force the Congress to take the only remedy that Congress can take,'” Flake said. “To remind the president of that is the best way to keep him from going down that road. To fire Mueller without cause, I don't know if there is any other remedy left to the legislative branch.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned that ousting Mueller would “probably” be an impeachable offense.

“I think what the president will have done is stopped an investigation in whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians, what effect the Russians had on the 2016 campaign,” Graham said on conservative host Hugh Hewitt's radio show. “I can't see it being anything other than a corrupt purpose.”

But Flake and Graham have been outliers and Democrats said that most Republicans are being willfully blind to the possibility of Mueller's firing, arguing Trump has proven during his presidency that he will make rash decisions opposed by his aides and party leaders.

“People who have thought well of Donald Trump have usually been mistaken,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who has written legislation to protect the special counsel in case of a firing, has been trying to persuade Republicans in dozens of recent conversations to sign onto his bill, with little traction. He argued that GOP senators don't want to contemplate what they would be forced to do should a firing occur.

“If we do not have a coherent plan for how to address an abrupt firing of Bob Mueller, then we are failing to do our job,” Coons said. Referring to the recent dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Delaware senator added: “If you think President Trump is going to hesitate to do something dramatic and bold like firing Rod Rosenstein or Jeff Sessions, you're just not watching the show.”

Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, took over the supervision of the Mueller probe last year due to Attorney General Sessions's recusal from the Russia inquiry. Trump cannot directly dismiss Mueller and would have to direct Rosenstein to fire the special counsel — a scenario GOP lawmakers say won't happen. But Trump could also fire Rosenstein and replace him with someone who would end the probe.

Coons' legislation, authored with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., as well as a similar measure from Sens. Graham and Cory Booker, D-N.J., intended to protect the special counsel have languished in Congress for months. Trump's latest verbal assault has done little to persuade Republicans that legislation is needed. Democratic leaders negotiating a must-pass government spending bill tried to insert language to protect the special counsel into the legislation, but were rebuffed by Republicans, according to one person familiar with the back-and-forth who requested anonymity to discuss private talks.

“I just don't think it's necessary,” McConnell said. “I don't think Bob Mueller is going anywhere. I think there's widespread feeling, and the president's lawyers obviously agree, that he ought to be allowed to finish the job.”

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