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 GrahamOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Polling analyst: Changes to legal immigration ‘the real sticking point among Democrats’ Graham would consider US-Russia military coordination in Syria 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. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAnti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with record B fine | Trump tries to clarify Russia remarks | Sinclair changing deal to win over FCC | Election security bill gets traction | Robocall firm exposed voter data Overnight Defense: More Trump drama over Russia | Appeals court rules against Trump on transgender ban | Boeing wins Air Force One contract | Military parade to reportedly cost M 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 MerkleyControversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws Anti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE 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 spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee 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 DurbinSenate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE 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 ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDem senator ties Kavanaugh confirmation vote to Trump-Putin controversy Don't place all your hopes — or fears — on a new Supreme Court justice Why did it take so long for Trump to drain the swamp of Pruitt? 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 ClintonProminent Putin critic: If Trump turns me over, I'm dead Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia Trump tweets old video of Clinton talking up 'a strong Russia' 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington Overnight Health Care: Novartis pulls back on drug price hikes | House Dems launch Medicare for All caucus | Trump officials pushing ahead on Medicaid work requirements Senate panel to vote next week on banning 'gag clauses' in pharmacy contracts 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 BurrCongress should build upon the ABLE Act, giving more Americans with disabilities access to financial tools Christine Todd Whitman: Trump should step down over Putin press conference GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Bipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure Senate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting 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 WydenHouse passes measure blocking IRS from revoking churches' tax-exempt status over political activity Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee MORE (D-Ore.) said he would “go to the mat” to make sure the subpoena was followed, but Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas 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 to clear backlog in testing rape kits Controversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting 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?'"