WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee warned on the floor of the Senate today that lawmakers need to stand up for the independence of the special counsel investigation and any presidential “gross abuse of power” amid “troubling signs” that the White House may be planning to interfere.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice-chairman of the intel panel, and Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) began leading the Senate investigation into Russian campaign interference before the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Warner and Burr have presented a unified front and kept their probe mostly under wraps, delivering an update on the investigation in an October press conference in which Burr said “the issue of collusion is still open… we’re not in a position where we’ll come to any kind of temporary finding on that until we’ve completed the process.”
Warner gave no indication that the bipartisan cooperation on the Senate Intelligence Committee has been fractured — the House Intelligence Committee has seen a rockier road, with Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) nominally taking over for Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in their Russia probe — and stressed that congressional investigations are not replacements for a law enforcement probe.
The vice-chairman slammed “a growing chorus of irresponsible and reckless voices” who over the past few weeks have called for President Trump to take steps to fire Mueller. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Congress last week that “if there were no good cause, I would not” fire Mueller. Justice Department regulations state a special counsel can be fired for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause.” Rosenstein said he he has not seen such cause with Mueller.
Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in the investigation, Trump would have to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller, then fire anybody in the DOJ line of succession who refuses to do so. Since the FBI investigation predates Mueller and would continue, Trump would then have to order FBI Director Christopher Wray to stop investigating his campaign. The last DOJ official left standing could also appoint a new special prosecutor, as happened in the Watergate investigation.
Warner said anti-Mueller talking points that have even suggested the former FBI director is involved in a coup are “extremely worrying” and “the seemingly coordinated nature of these claims should alarm us all.”
“I believe that it is up to every member of this institution, Republican or Democrat, to make a clear and unambiguous statement that any attempt by this president to remove special counsel Mueller from his position or to pardon key witnesses in any effort to shield them from accountability or shut down the investigation would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities,” the top Intel Dem said. “These truly are red lines and we simply cannot allow them to be crossed.”
Warner reminded his colleagues that the appointment of Mueller “was met with support on both sides of the aisle and received nearly universal praise.”
He noted that “all of the major players to date in this investigation” — Mueller, Rosenstein, former FBI Director James Comey, Sessions — are Republicans. “The charges that some have made that somehow Democratic political bias has crept into this investigation are baseless given the makeup of the leadership team,” he said.
Warner also emphasized that Mueller removed FBI agent Peter Strzok from the investigation immediately after learning of text messages to his FBI lawyer mistress that slammed Trump and other officials. “If anything, this incident only adds to Mr. Mueller’s credibility as a fair and independent investigator,” the senator argued.
Warner said he’s “proud” of the investigation being conducted with Burr, which has made “tremendous progress” including exposing Russia’s election exploitation of social media and uncovering “numerous and troubling high-level engagements between the Trump campaign and Russian affiliates.”
“However, it should be very clear that our committee cannot and will not stand as a substitute for Mr. Mueller’s investigation,” he added, a probe that so far has seen two Trump campaign officials indicted and two more negotiating guilty pleas.
Warner acknowledged that Trump has said in recent days he’s not planning on firing Mueller, but “the president’s track record on this front is a source of concern.”
“Firing Mr. Mueller or any of the other top brass involved in this investigation would not only call into question this administration’s commitment to the truth but also to our most basic concept: rule of law,” he continued. “It also has the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis. In the United States of America, no one — no one — is above the law, not even the president.” Congress should make clear, the senator added, that firing Mueller or interfering with the investigation would have “immediate” and “significant consequences.”
“I hope I would never have to make this kind of speech, but there are troubling signs,” Warner said, urging lawmakers to “speak up against these threats now before it’s too late.”
CNN reported Monday that Trump “has privately seemed less frustrated about the investigation” recently, convinced he will soon be exonerated by Mueller in writing. Vanity Fair reported Tuesday that Mueller’s investigation could continue into late 2018 as former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and former foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos are both cooperating with the FBI per their plea agreements.
Mueller, per Rosenstein’s appointment order, is authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
UPDATE 8 p.m. EST: “For five months or more, the White House has persistently and emphatically stated there is no consideration of firing the special counsel, and the White House willingly affirms yet again, as it has every day this week, there is no consideration being given to the termination of the special counsel,” Trump lawyer Ty Cobb told CNN after Warner’s speech.