Congress

How Senate Democrats could get what they want from Comey’s firing

FBI then-Director James Comey shakes hands with Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., as committee members Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. (left), and Chris Coons, D-Del., watch on May 3, 2017.
FBI then-Director James Comey shakes hands with Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., as committee members Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. (left), and Chris Coons, D-Del., watch on May 3, 2017. AP

So, Democrats are hinting to President Donald Trump, want a new FBI director? Then agree to an independent investigation of your campaign’s possible ties to Russia.

Democrats control only 48 Senate seats, meaning they need to pull three Republicans over to their side. The bipartisan angst over the abrupt firing of James Comey on Tuesday could give them the leverage they badly need.

They want a special prosecutor, or perhaps a special panel, to investigate allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Republican leaders oppose an independent probe, but some GOP senators are sympathetic.

Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., say they will not vote for a new FBI director unless Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appoints a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s influence on last year’s presidential election.

Rosentein could get a chance to make his case. In an initial concession from Republicans, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Thursday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had invited Rosenstein to brief all 100 senators next week. Nothing has been formally scheduled.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., had another idea, hoping enough Republicans could be persuaded to consider funding the Justice Department only if it agreed to a special prosecutor. The department’s funding is part of one of a dozen appropriations bills Congress must pass before the start of the next fiscal year Oct. 1.

“If we put down our foot, if there were sufficient support, we could bring pressure to bear in a variety of ways,” Blumenthal said.

They’re trying aggressively to convince Republicans to help apply pressure. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Thursday that he’d been “talking to my Republican friends, yesterday and today.”

Democrats could also remind Republicans they’d like certain favorites to be considered as future FBI directors. Federal appellate court Judge Merrick Garland’s name surfaced at the Capitol on Thursday, thanks to conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Garland was former President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, but Republican leaders blocked any Senate hearing or a vote.

“That’s a great suggestion,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “We’ll see where it goes.”

Democrats might be less enthusiastic about two other names that were the subject of informal talk Thursday on Capitol Hill: Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and former Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Gowdy is best known for leading the hearings into the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. Ayotte, the New Hampshire attorney general from 2004 to 2009, lost her Senate re-election bid last year.

Democrats are focused on a handful of Republicans who have broken ranks on key votes since the Comey firing. And of the nine Republican senators facing re-election, Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada are considered vulnerable.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina opposed moving forward with a repeal of the Obama administration’s rules on methane emissions from oil and gas drilling Wednesday, causing a rare defeat for McConnell on a routine procedural vote.

Thursday, McCain and Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Cory Gardner of Colorado voted against Trump’s nominee for U.S. trade representative. The Senate still confirmed Robert Lighthizer by 82-14. Sasse has been a persistent critic of Trump. Democrat Hillary Clinton won Colorado last year.

Several Republicans have expressed concerns about the timing and manner in which Trump fired Comey.

“He has an absolute right to fire the FBI director for any reason,” Graham said Thursday of the president. “The problem is the inconsistent reasons being offered.”

Graham, though, doesn’t see a need for a special prosecutor and said the FBI should be allowed to continue its investigation “wherever it needs to go.”

While McCain has said he favors creating a special committee to investigate Russian interference in the election, no Republican has yet endorsed the special prosecutor Democrats want.

A swift movement in public opinion could change that, Democrats say.

Trump’s popularity was slipping even before he fired Comey. A nonpartisan Quinnipiac University survey taken last week put the president’s approval rating at 36 percent, down from 40 percent in April.

“I think there is growing outrage and an outcry that will be heard by our Republican colleagues as they are by Democrats,” Blumenthal said. “I think we’re going to hear it, and it will change minds.”

Donovan Harrell contributed to this article.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

Related stories from McClatchy DC

  Comments