The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted 14–7 to advance to the Senate floor legislation that would seek to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from an unjustified firing.
Four Republicans—Sen. Jeff Flake (Arizona), bill co-sponsors Sens. Thom Tillis (North Carolina) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa)—voted with every Democrat on the committee to move the bill forward.
The bill would demand that the firing of a special counsel be accompanied by a written justification for that firing, and it would give a special counsel 10 days to contest that firing in the District Court for the District of Columbia.
Within 14 days, a court of three judges would be required to hear and determine whether or not the firing was justified. If the three-judge panel ruled that the firing was unjustified, it would not take effect.
The bill would also require that a special counsel provide the House and Senate Judiciary committees’ chairmen and ranking members respectively with a written report “detailing the factual findings of the investigation and explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached.”
While the legislation appears to be going no further than it did on Thursday, the vote and debate around it were the strongest signals yet from Senate Republicans to President Trump that he should not attempt to fire Mueller or impede his investigation.
The vote was accompanied by speeches from several Republican committee members affirming their belief that Mueller must be allowed to finish his job. Even some who voted against the proposal spoke in their strongest terms yet against such a potential move by the president, asserting that it would be a disaster for his presidency and the country.
Sen. Graham said:
[If] president Trump somehow tried to fire Mr. Rosenstein or get rid of Mueller, it would blow up in his face. It would be the worst decision of his presidency. It would create a crisis for this country. We don’t need that.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), who voted against the motion, citing the measure’s purported constitutional flaws, said:
Firing Mueller would cause a firestorm and bring the administration’s agenda to a halt. It could even result in impeachment. I think we’re right to convey a strong message to the president that he should not fire Robert Mueller.
Sen. Ben Sasse (Nebraska), who voted against the motion on the same constitutional argument as Hatch, said:
I think that it would be disastrous for the nation to fire Mueller and it would be politically suicidal for the president. … Protecting Mueller is a great instinct and it would be politically disastrous for the president to act.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Texas), who voted against the motion and reiterated Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise not to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, said:
I continue to believe it’s in the best interest of the country to let the special counsel be allowed to complete his investigation and do so in a timely fashion. I believe that we are all in agreement on that. … The president is not going to fire Director Mueller, I believe, because the repercussions of doing so would be disastrous for his presidency and for the country.
Sen. Mike Lee (Utah)—who voted against the motion on the aforementioned constitutional argument, but introduced a failed amendment that would have substituted the core of the bill with text affirming the Senate’s belief that Mueller should not be fired—said:
Robert Mueller should be able to finish his investigation in a timely manner. … The amendment that I’m introducing sends a clear signal that the president should not fire Mr. Mueller …
Again, McConnell has promised not to let the bill advance, and Cornyn seemed to affirm that promise on Thursday. But the vote in favor itself—which included four of the 11 Republican committee members—was the strongest rebuke by GOP leadership of President Trump’s various signals that he might seek to impede the investigation.
That even many of the Republicans who voted against the measure sought to express their support for Mueller’s probe—and belief that ending it would be a disaster for Trump’s presidency—was a similarly strong message to the president.