Special Counsel Robert Mueller III received a bipartisan boost from Capitol Hill on Thursday, even as news broke that he’d moved to a more serious phase of his investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether Donald Trump’s campaign or associates colluded with Moscow to help him win the presidency.
In a clear warning to the president not to mess with Mueller, two bipartisan sets of senators Thursday proposed laws that would require judicial oversight of the firing of a special counsel.
Angered over the ongoing Russia probe, Trump has talked about firing Mueller. Meanwhile, the special counsel, who has been on the job less than three months, has recently impaneled a grand jury in Washington, the logical next step in the inquiry, which has been built on many months of investigating by the FBI.
Now Mueller will have the power to issue subpoenas for documents — the president’s long-withheld tax returns, for instance – and will be able compel prospective witnesses to testify.
Impaneling a grand jury doesn’t necessarily mean criminal indictments will be forthcoming, or ever materialize at all. But it does signal that the pace of Mueller’s investigation is stepping up and that it will likely continue for months to come.
"We need to get answers, and if this is the next step in getting answers, he should take it," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Cantwell is a member of the Intelligence Committee, which is probing many of the same areas as Mueller.
"If true that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury, suggests his work is proceeding,” tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating. “All the more impt that Congress protect his independence."
News of the grand jury was first reported by the Wall Street Journal; it was confirmed by McClatchy.
Ty Cobb, special counsel to the president, said he was unaware that Mueller had started using a new grand jury.
“Grand jury matters are typically secret," Cobb said. “The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly....The White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller.”
Federal prosecutors in Virginia have a separate grand jury looking into possible criminal activities by retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and policy aide during the campaign
News of Mueller’s decision to impanel a grand jury, combined with the actions in the Senate to try and shield him, came just as most senators were fleeing the capital until after Labor Day, further increasing the drama that has marked the Trump-Russia story since the election.
Whether or not collusion ever occurred, the story has unfolded in a headline-a-day fashion through a torrent of leaks of information and constantly shifting explanations from White House officials and others around Trump, as well as outright lies.
In the process, Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey over the investigation, and admitted as much to two top Russian diplomats during a White House meeting.
More recently, the revelation of a meeting last year between Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.; son-in-law Jared Kushner, then a top campaign aide and now a White House adviser; and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, with a Russian attorney to discuss derogatory information about Democrat Hillary Clinton has made it it difficult for Trump and others to easily dismiss claims of collusion.
Recent polls show Trump’s popularity is sinking. An NPR/PBS Marist Poll survey last month found that a combined 54 percent of the public think that he might have done something either illegal or unethical in dealing with Russia.
“This move, at this time, following the further revelations of contacts between the Trump campaign and representatives of Russia, takes the entire situation to another level,” said Jonathan Winer, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for international law enforcement in the Clinton administration.
Indeed, CNN reported that subpoenas have gone out in connection with the Trump Jr. meeting with the Russian lawyer.
Trump has called the various probes a “witch hunt.” In a recent interview with The New York Times, he appeared to indicate that if Mueller began looking into his personal and business finances, the president might see that as a reason to attempt to dismiss him.
"I think that's a violation," Trump said of that line of inquiry. "Look, this is about Russia. So I think if he wants to go, my finances are extremely good, my company is an unbelievably successful company." He later told the Wall Street Journal that Mueller’s job was not safe.
Firing Mueller would likely trigger an uproar on Capitol Hill, where Trump’s support among many in his own party is said to be wavering lately. One Republican senator, Jeff Flake of Arizona, just published a book that excoriates both Trump and his own party.
Hoping to quash talk about Mueller’s future, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said in an interview with Fox News Channel's Neil Cavuto: “The president is not thinking about firing Robert Mueller, so the speculation that’s out there is just incorrect.”
Still, in a sign that Trump’s finances may in fact be in Mueller’s sights, the special counsel recently added to his team a former prosecutor who oversaw fraud and foreign bribery investigations at the Justice Department.
A person familiar with the matter said the probe appears to be following two major tracks as it looks into potential crimes. "Number one is collusion and obstruction," the person said. "Number two is financial crimes."
It was Trump’s statements about Mueller possibly looking into his finances that led some lawmakers to circle the wagons around him.
The proposed legislation stems from "concerns that the president may take abrupt action regarding the special counsel," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a sponsor of one of the bills. "Candidate Trump promised to be unpredictable… President Trump has made good on that promise."
Both bills are sponsored by a Republican and Democrat. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Coons have proposed creating a panel of three federal judges that would review and potentially reverse a dismissal of any special counsel hired on or since May 17, 2017.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., with support from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., offered a bill that has a three-federal judge panel preview any effort to fire a special counsel before it occurs, to make sure it meets regulatory standards.
With the Senate on recess, the bills won’t be voted on until September at the earliest.
Speaking at a press gathering, Coons highlighted Tillis’s involvement, an indication, he said, "of a growing number of Republicans who are pushing back" against what they feel are the misguided actions of Trump.
"It is critical that special counsels have the independence and resources they need to lead investigations," Tillis said in a prepared statement. "A back-end judicial review process to prevent unmerited removals of special counsels not only helps to ensure their investigatory independence, but also reaffirms our nation’s system of check and balances."
It’s unclear how much support the bills have in the Senate, despite their bipartisan sponsorship. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine., said she didn’t see a need for the legislation. She noted that Trump can’t directly fire Mueller -- though he could fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and try to replace him with someone who would fire Mueller, and legal experts have said he could try to use an executive order to eliminate the regulations Mueller was hired under.
"Under the Justice Department guidelines which say that the special counsel can only be removed for cause, it also requires a report to Congress already on what the justification was," she said. "So I think that those are likely sufficient deterrents to firing Bob Mueller. … I think as long as the Justice Department guidelines are followed, that Mr. Mueller has absolutely nothing to be concerned about."
Peter H. Stone and Kevin G. Hall contributed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the office held by James Comey.