WASHINGTON – Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) today advocated for his bill subjecting special counsel removal to a judicial process, saying that he wants to avoid a Saturday Night Massacre with President Trump.
The Saturday Night Massacre refers to President Nixon’s firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 during the Watergate investigation. Both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in response to Nixon’s order, and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the president.
“We’re trying to make sure something out of balance doesn’t occur and (Special Counsel Robert) Mueller can proceed with some confidence,” Graham said during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Justice and the FBI. “Here’s what I’m trying to avoid is a Saturday Night Massacre and an upheaval in the country that I think would be hard for us to get over, and I want the president to know that there is a process in place, there are checks and balances that were here long before you got here, and they will be here long after you’re gone.”
The Special Counsel Independence Protection Act, introduced by Graham and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), would subject a special counsel’s removal to a panel of federal judges. A panel of experts testifying before the committee disagreed over the constitutionality of such a measure.
Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) have introduced similar legislation, which would allow a special counsel to challenge his removal in court, with federal judges determining if there was good cause for the removal.
Mueller, appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is currently investigating whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election and related potential offenses such as obstruction of justice and money laundering.
There was some disagreement between lawmakers at today’s hearing on whether Trump had threatened to remove Mueller as special counsel. Tillis said he was not driven to introduce his bill by any indication that the president intends to remove Mueller.
“My motivation was actually to remove the distraction and to eliminate what I thought was a spiraling of the narrative out there that was not based in any factual, anything in the record I should say, that this president intended to remove the special counsel,” Tillis said. “It became something that just spun up through social media and everything. I don’t know of any actions the president took that people could say he intended to remove the special counsel.”
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) disagreed with Tillis, stating that Trump threatened Mueller when the president said the special counsel would be crossing a “red line” if he investigate Trump’s finances.
“We never quite know what the president is saying at any one time, nor do I necessarily think he knows, but it sounds like a threat to me,” Franken said.
Coons said that the bill introduced with Tillis goes beyond any temporary partisan bickering and concerns the core of American rule of law. Tillis noted that the legislation isn’t meant to clip “any one president’s wings.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that the situation is heading toward a constitutional showdown between the president and the special counsel, given Trump’s threats toward Mueller and the relief the president said he felt after firing FBI Director James Comey, who initially led the Russia probe. Blumenthal noted that Russian interference in the 2016 election has been clearly established by the intelligence community, beginning with a January multi-agency assessment.
The remaining questions, the senator said, are potential collusion and obstruction of justice from the administration. He said that Trump and Mueller are on a “collision course.”