Russia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement

Russia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement
© Greg Nash

The surprise decision to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the FBI's investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election is throwing ongoing congressional probes into limbo.

Senators are scrambling to figure out what Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to name former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel means for their own investigations.

Lawmakers have been working for months to sort through documents and line up interviews with former Trump officials and have even issued a subpoena against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned earlier this year.

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“I think it pretty well at a minimum limits it, maybe just takes us out of the game,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCNN to air sexual harassment Town Hall featuring Gretchen Carlson, Anita Hill Trump wrestles with handling American enemy combatants Flake: Trump's call for DOJ to probe Democrats 'not normal' MORE (R-S.C.) said Thursday. "It’s going to be hard for us. … Public access to what happened is going to be very limited now because of a special counsel and I don’t want to get in his way."

Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMcConnell: 'I don't hear much pressure' to pass bill protecting Mueller from Trump Bipartisan lawmakers can rebuild trust by passing infusion therapy bill Democrats double down on calls for Congress to protect Mueller MORE (D-Del.) added his “concern is that we do not end up in a place where the special counsel doesn’t communicate with Congress for months or years.”

Graham and Coons are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of four congressional committees digging into Russia’s election interference and possible ties to Trump campaign officials. The Senate Intelligence, House Intelligence and House Oversight committees are also conducting investigations.

Senators raised questions about how they might coordinate their investigations with the FBI and Justice Department probes with Rosenstein during a closed-door briefing Thursday.

Mueller is effectively taking over an ongoing FBI investigation into Russia's election meddling and any contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

But his special prosecutor title leaves him largely unaccountable to Congress, raising concerns among lawmakers that he could limit what documents the congressional investigations receive or who can appear before their committees.

“There were a number of members of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees that raised concerns about access to information, and the processes that would be put in place to expeditiously get that information,” Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyDems mull big changes after Brazile bombshell Dems push clearer GMO labeling Dems cheer Flake after scathing Trump speech MORE (D-Ore.) told reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Leadership in both parties, as well as top lawmakers on the committees running the investigations, quickly threw their support behind continuing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.) has repeatedly argued publicly that a special prosecutor wasn’t needed and that he supported the probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he is an ex officio member of as the chamber’s top Republican.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDems mull big changes after Brazile bombshell After Texas shooting, lawmakers question whether military has systemic reporting problem Bipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program MORE (D-Ill.) noted that McConnell was one of the first members to ask Rosenstein about how to coordinate the investigations during Thursday’s meeting.

Washington has a long history of naming special counsel to dig into White House controversies. Former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonTop Oversight Dem pushes back on Uranium One probe Bill Clinton hits Trump, tax reform plan in Georgetown speech The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s administration was plagued by yearslong investigations, ultimately leading to his impeachment trial five years later. 

Republicans also wanted special counsel to look into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE's private email server, even though Congress had its own investigation.

Senators stressed that they’re still in the game in the wake of Rosenstein's decision.

"We still have an extremely important role to play," Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program A bipartisan bridge opens between the House and Senate Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Maine) told MSNBC. "Our investigation is really important because it is, it will be in public. His won't. And we need a far broader set of the facts to come out.”

Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrJuan Williams: The shame of Trump's enablers Five takeaways from the social media hearings Overnight Tech: Senators demand tech firms do more on Russian meddling | House Intel releases Russian-promoted ads | Apple CEO says 'fake news' bigger threat than ads | Ex-Yahoo CEO, Equifax execs to testify on breaches MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program The Hill interview — DNC chief: I came here to win elections Virginia's governor race: What to watch for MORE (D-Va.), the chairman and vice chairman respectively of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also signaled that their committee's probe would continue to move forward in the immediate wake of Rosenstein's announcement. 

Warner said on Thursday afternoon that he and Burr want to sit down with Mueller as soon as next week to try to “deconflict” the jurisdictional boundaries of their investigations.

“In many ways our purview is broader than what may be some of the Justice Department/FBI investigation," he told reporters, defending the need to continue the congressional investigations.

Mueller was given control of the investigation into any coordination between the campaign and Russia but also any other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” — such as FBI Director James Comey’s dismissal.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also struggled to get Flynn to comply with its investigation. It is unclear what, if anything, lawmakers could do to force him to meet with the committee.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenLobbying World Overnight Regulation: House to vote on repealing joint-employer rule | EPA won't say which areas don't meet Obama smog rule | Lawmakers urge regulators to reject Perry plan New tax plan will hinder care for older Americans MORE (D-Ore.) said he would “go to the mat” to make sure the subpoena was followed, but Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenators push mandatory sexual harassment training for members, staff Bipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program Senate panel to hold hearing on bump stocks MORE (D-Calif.), the former chairwoman of the committee, hedged, telling reporters, “Frankly, he has rights.”

Graham echoed Feinstein, saying Flynn has a “Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.” 

“If I were his lawyer I would probably be making the argument that if I’m under criminal investigation, you cannot force me to compromise myself,” he added. 

Senators also appeared uncertain on Thursday about what the Mueller pick meant for their push for Comey to testify publicly.

Lawmakers were already locked in a turf war over who would get Comey’s first public comments since he was fired. 

"It looks like there's a little competition for jurisdiction, but truthfully both the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee have some say in all of that," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is a member of both committees.

The Judiciary Committee has requested any memos from Comey and any White House records of his conversations with Trump. Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenators push mandatory sexual harassment training for members, staff Senate panel to hold hearing on bump stocks, background checks Senate panel to hold hearing on bump stocks MORE (R-Iowa), who oversees the committee, said it would go forward with those requests.

But Graham signaled on Thursday that he wasn’t sure Comey would be able to come speak before Congress, specifying that he hasn’t yet heard from from the former FBI director.

“I don’t know if, one, if he wants to, [but] he has a reason now because there's a special counsel,” Graham told reporters. “It probably shuts us down”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added, “I don’t know the answer to that. I can’t tell you. I understand what Lindsey’s saying. I would like to hear from Comey.”

“We're gonna have to put him on a milk carton,” Graham said. “'Have you seen this man?'"