Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has done his best to throw cold water on a bipartisan bill that would effectively block President Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. McConnell told Fox News that he “will not” bring the bill to the floor, and that even if the Senate managed to pass it, he sees no reason why Trump would sign it.
All that makes the bill look like an awfully lost cause. But for those backing the legislation, its actual passage may be beside the point. As the White House spins out of control, the bill is important both as a measure of growing public pressure on Republicans and as a signal that Congress is prepared to defend the rule of law.
The emergence of two Senate Republicans as the bill’s lead sponsors, including North Carolina conservative Thom Tillis, is something of a watershed, say the legislation’s backers. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley’s move to schedule a markup on the bill next week in the Senate Judiciary Committee (which he chairs) is also a significant move. In the House, two identical bills—one authored by Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent, the other by New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler—have four Republican cosponsors between them.
“Rarely do we see this sort of bipartisan effort this early in the game,” says Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy and external affairs for Common Cause. “And that’s a good sign, if and when it picks up steam.”
Common Cause is one of more than three dozen progressive, labor, environmental, and good government groups that have generated thousands of calls to Capitol Hill in recent days to support the legislation. The groups have rallied more than 300,000 activists to line up instant protests at 800 locations throughout the country should Trump trigger a constitutional crisis by firing Mueller, pardoning key witnesses, or otherwise impeding the investigation with moves like firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The campaign has accelerated in recent weeks, with 100,000 sign-ups since March 17, the day then–Trump lawyer John Dowd called for the Mueller probe to end, according to Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen, another lead organizer. (Dowd resigned just days later over strategic disagreements with Trump.) Out of the total sign-ups, 40,000 have signed on since the April 9 raid on the offices of Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Trump has called Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt” from the start, and has twice considered firing the special counsel. Trump has said that “many people” have told him he should fire Mueller, that the special counsel is “the most conflicted of all,” and that the FBI is tainted by partisan bias. He has long said the probe, which started as an investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election, would cross a “red line” if it examined his personal finances—a line the Cohen raid appears to have crossed.
But the bill to protect Muller signals that Congress has its own “red line,” its authors say. Senate Democrat Christopher Coons, another lead sponsor, has said that an increasing number of Republicans are “eager to find ways that we can strengthen the separation of powers, and strengthen the Senate’s hand” to safeguard Mueller. A strong majority of Americans support Mueller’s investigation, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The legislation faces plenty of obstacles. Grassley’s markup was initially planned for this week, but was postponed until next week due to friction with Judiciary’s ranking Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. At issue is a Grassley-authored amendment that Democrats fear may fatally weaken the bill by giving Congress fresh powers to dictate the scope of special counsel investigations.
Of the four House Republicans who have signed onto parallel legislation, three have announced plans to leave Congress. Dent resigns from Capitol Hill next month. Another Republican backer, Pennsylvania’s Ryan Costello, is retiring at the end of his term. And Republican Walter Jones, of North Carolina, a co-sponsor of the identical Nadler bill, has said this fall’s midterm will be his last election—those decisions leave Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick as the lone GOP supporter who does not have one foot out the door.
Predictably, public opinion on Mueller is split sharply along partisan lines. Eight in ten Democrats in the Post-ABC News survey say they support Mueller investigating Russian election interference, Trump’s businesses, and hush money paid to women. But more than half of Republicans say they oppose Mueller looking into all three areas. And GOP challengers in Republican primaries have taken to openly calling for an end to the investigation. That leaves congressional Republicans in a familiar tight spot, stuck between Trump loyalists and swing voters they fear might oust them in a blue wave.
For all that, the bill is drawing serious GOP notice, and Tillis has argued that it would actually help Trump by blunting the constant speculation that the president will fire Mueller. GOP leaders are fond of saying that Trump will not fire the special counsel. But with his bill, Coons is asking his Republican colleagues: What would you do if he did? If and when that query ceases to be hypothetical, Republicans had better come up with an answer.