Key Republicans on Wednesday flatly rejected growing calls for an independent investigator or a special panel to probe possible ties between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign in the wake of Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey.
While Democrats escalated their investigative demands – and threatened to stall Senate business as a protest – following Comey’s firing Tuesday, the Republicans who control both the House of Representatives and the Senate insisted that existing investigations suffice.
Notably, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said his panel should continue its ongoing investigation without outside interference.
“My committee has got the jurisdiction and the responsibility to investigate this. We are going to do that,” Burr said.
Leaving no doubt about his party’s intentions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., started the day on the Senate floor by declaring that “partisan calls should not delay the considerable work” of Burr’s committee. That view was reiterated at a private meeting of Republican senators later Wednesday.
Tactically, McConnell’s words put his fellow Republicans on notice not to waver.
“Too much is at stake,” McConnell said.
Republicans took heed. Several criticized Trump’s action, but most pushed back against several investigative ideas that sound similar but have significant differences.
The next major signal how Republicans will proceed could come next week. Comey has been invited to testify Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Four distinct alternatives to an Intelligence Committee investigation are being floated, though none has picked up much GOP support. Lawmakers from both parties have suggested creating a special select committee in Congress, akin to the Senate panel that was established in 1973 to investigate Watergate-related allegations, or the House-Senate committee in the 1980s that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Wednesday that he would support the creation of a special select committee, and a few other Republicans have not ruled out the idea.
“I’m not saying yes, but not saying no,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., while adding that “I think the Intelligence Committee is moving forward.”
Other lawmakers seek a special commission, such as the blue-ribbon 9/11 Commission, which was composed of members outside of Congress.
A Senate bill to establish an independent commission was introduced in January and so far has collected 27 supporters, all of them Democrats.
Separately, some Democrats want the Justice Department to appoint a “special counsel” to lead an investigation. And, in what seems the least likely option, a few Democrats want to pass legislation to authorize an “independent counsel” similar to the one who investigated former President Bill Clinton and members of his Cabinet.
Citing fears that Comey may have been “fired to stifle the FBI’s Russia investigation,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday joined other lawmakers in proposing the appointment of an outside investigator of some kind. Feinstein’s call might carry special weight, as she is the Senate Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat.
“Americans expect to have faith in the ability of the Justice Department to carry out a high-level investigation without interference from the White House,” Feinstein said in a statement.
A longtime member of the Senate Intelligence Committee as well, Feinstein said she planned to work closely with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a fellow Judiciary Committee member, on legislation to authorize the appointment of an independent counsel.
On a separate track, while writing the independent counsel bill, Feinstein urged Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to proceed with “the appointment of a special counsel who should be far removed from the politics of this place.”
That wasn’t getting much backing from Republicans, with McConnell saying a new investigation “could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done (and) . . . to see that it doesn’t occur again.”
Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana echoed Burr that the Senate Intelligence Committee is sufficient to address Russia’s influence in the 2016 election.
“I think the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee is doing a great job,” Cassidy said. “No one has complained about their work.”
Not even electoral politics moved Republicans. Nine Senate Republicans are up for re-election next year, and only two are regarded as potentially vulnerable. One, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, said an additional investigation could slow and complicate the congressional inquiries.
These people get up in the morning and they are professionals. The FBI prides itself on its professionalism, and I have confidence in those men and women that they’re going to do a great job.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.
The Justice Department does have an option that does not need congressional approval: the naming of a special counsel.
During the George W. Bush administration, for instance, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed special counsel by the Justice Department in late 2003 to investigate the leaking of a CIA officer’s name. The investigation lasted through mid-2007, during which a New York Times reporter was jailed for contempt and a former vice-presidential chief of staff was convicted of lying under oath.
In a different vein, in 1999, former Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth was appointed a special counsel to probe the 1993 deaths at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Danforth completed his work a year later, concluding the federal government had acted properly.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russian investigation, so the appointment of a special counsel would be up to his deputy, Rosenstein. Justice Department regulations permit the attorney general to fire the special counsel for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest or for other good cause.”
A special counsel would be different from an independent counsel.
First first authorized under a 1978 law, an independent counsel could be appointed by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The highest-profile independent counsel appointed under this law, Kenneth Starr, was the chief overseer of a years-long inquiry that spanned most of the Clinton administration’s two terms, cost upward of $80 million and led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Congress, where even some conservatives were dismayed over the ever-expanding scope of the independent counsel, let the authorizing law expire in 1999.
“What’s needed is a special prosecutor, whether you believe the president is culpable or not,” said Blumenthal. “If you believe that the president is completely innocent of any wrongdoing, all the more reason to have an independent special prosecutor to ensure the credibility.”
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders countered Wednesday that Trump administration officials “don’t think there’s a necessary need” for an additional investigation.
Sean Cockerham and Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.
Who else could undertake Russia investigation?
A “special counsel” can be appointed by the Justice Department. An “independent counsel” requires legislation. A “select committee” consists of members of Congress. A blue-ribbon “commission” consists of non-lawmakers.