Senate Judiciary Approves Bill To Protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller While the bill lacks support from GOP leaders in the House and Senate, it's intended to send a message to President Trump that he avoid interfering with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
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Bill To Protect Mueller Investigation Approved By Senate Judiciary Committee

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Bill To Protect Mueller Investigation Approved By Senate Judiciary Committee

Bill To Protect Mueller Investigation Approved By Senate Judiciary Committee

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee took a surprising step to buck party leaders and stand up to President Trump. Four Republicans voted with every Democrat on the committee to approve a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: We're not saying you can't fire somebody. We're saying somebody's going to look over your shoulder in these hotly contested political environments.

CHANG: That's South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham explaining why he helped write the bill even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said it will not get a vote in the full Senate. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is here to explain what comes next. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So first explain, what would this bill do?

SNELL: First of all, the bill would give Mueller or any future special counsel a right to challenge his or her firing in court. It would give them 10 days to apply for a speedy judicial review to make sure that he or she was fired with good cause. It would also require the attorney general to update Congress if a special counsel is either hired or fired, and if they made any changes to the scope of what that investigation would be. So if they - if there were any changes to what the special counsel was allowed to look into, if it got smaller or bigger.

CHANG: OK.

SNELL: It's a pretty narrow bill, but supporters think it would give Congress more oversight in a highly political situation. And several senators said that Congress has a bigger role to play when the White House is being investigated because that situation creates huge political tensions and there's big opportunity for political conflicts of interest.

CHANG: All right, so four Republicans, including the chairman of the judiciary committee, Chuck Grassley, voted for the measure...

SNELL: Right.

CHANG: ...But many more Republican members did not. What don't they like about the bill?

SNELL: They break down into a couple of different camps. There are the people who say they just don't think it's necessary to protect Mueller because they don't think the president will fire him, those who say this specific bill might be unconstitutional. And then there are the people who believe a little bit of both. Now, the people who say it isn't necessary is that they just think that the president knows that it would be a political disaster to fire Mueller, and they don't think he'll do it. They also think passing a bill like this would essentially taunt the president by saying that, you know, we don't - we think you're going to do this and poking the bear a little bit (laughter).

CHANG: Huh. OK (laughter).

SNELL: Others think there's a constitutional problem with Congress getting involved in any kind of special investigator. They say Congress would be overstepping their legal limits. And they point to an opinion written in 1988 by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They say he makes the point that prosecuting these kinds of alleged crimes isn't Congress's job. Judiciary committee member Ben Sasse is one of those people.

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BENJAMIN SASSE: I think that it would be disastrous for the nation to fire Mueller, and it would be politically suicidal for the president. And yet, the Scalia opinion - many of us feel that we're bound by it.

SNELL: You can hear Sasse there expressing something that a lot of judiciary committee members said today - Mueller shouldn't be fired, and we in Congress shouldn't step in.

CHANG: Explain to all of us, what is the point of voting on a bill that has no chance of becoming law?

SNELL: Yeah, this is politics through and through. Democrats and some Republicans want to send a message that there are people in Congress willing to stand up to Trump. Here's how judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley explained it.

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CHUCK GRASSLEY: In some ways, today's vote will say a lot about how each of us view our responsibilities as a senator. We took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. But we're neither judges or presidents.

SNELL: This was also an important moment for Democrats who can now say that there are Republicans on the Hill who voted to protect Mueller. And they can say that this and the investigation in general isn't a partisan exercise. And that's something that you can expect to hear them say anytime the White House calls the investigation a partisan witch hunt.

CHANG: All right. Well, earlier we heard Senator Sasse says he thinks protecting Mueller is a good instinct even if this bill might have problems. So what other options does Congress have?

SNELL: A few Republicans offered a compromise plan to allow the Senate to vote on a nonbinding bill, kind of a toothless effort to say, we in Congress support the idea of the Mueller investigation. That's not really going anywhere. But the other option is that this bill doesn't die because McConnell doesn't want to vote on it today. If Trump did decide to fire Mueller, they could vote on it then and make all of the provisions retroactive to cover Mueller as well.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you.

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