OPIOID SERIES:

GOP fractures over push to protect Russia probe

GOP fissures are widening over President TrumpDonald John TrumpFlynn to campaign for Montana GOP Senate candidate Trump considering pardon for boxing legend after call from Sylvester Stallone Decline in EPA enforcement won't keep climate bill from coming MORE’s apparent consideration of firing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinThe Memo: Trump lowers the temperature on Mueller probe Trump casts doubt on legality of special counsel Mueller Comey memo fallout is mostly fizzle MORE

Trump’s days-long attack on the Russia investigation has caused heartburn among lawmakers worried that the impulsive president could ax Mueller or Rosenstein, setting off a chain of events Republicans describe as “suicide” and “catastrophic” months before a midterm elections.

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Left in political limbo, Republicans are upping their public warnings to Trump while holding out hope he is simply venting his frustration. 

"I think it would be an end to his presidency from the political chaos," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), asked about potentially firing Mueller or Rosenstein, during one of his many public warnings this week.

There are signs that Trump’s focus on Mueller and the probe into potential collusion between his campaign and Moscow has inched at least some members of his party toward taking legislative action. 

A small, but growing, band of Republicans seem like they are becoming more supportive of legislation that would protect Mueller.

The legislation, introduced this week, would limit Trump’s ability to fire the special counsel, specifying that only a senior Justice Department official can get rid of him and giving Mueller, or any other special counsel, an expedited court review of their firing.

Formally, only Graham and Tillis have signed on to the legislation. But several other senators have signaled they are open to it, even if they are skeptical it could become law.

“I can support it as sending a message but I think that there are constitutional problems with it and I can’t imagine the president signing it,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSunday Shows Preview: Emmanuel Macron talks ahead of state dinner GOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees Overnight Energy: Trump NASA pick advances after drama | White House office to investigate Pruitt's soundproof booth | 170 lawmakers call for Pruitt to resign MORE (R-Maine.).

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators press administration on mental health parity Overnight Energy: Watchdogs unveil findings on EPA, Interior controversies | GAO says EPA violated law with soundproof booth | IG says Zinke could have avoided charter flight | GOP chair probes Pruitt's four email addresses GOP fractures over push to protect Russia probe MORE (R-Alaska) told reporters that “it’s certainly something I would be looking at.” Meanwhile, Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSunday Shows Preview: Emmanuel Macron talks ahead of state dinner Pompeo lacks votes for positive vote on panel Democrats mull audacious play to block Pompeo MORE (R-Tenn.), while warning against trying to pass legislation and failing, added, “If there’s appropriate legislation, I would certainly sign on to it.” 

The legislation is expected to get a vote in committee on April 26, according to Grassley and his staff. But whether it can get 60 votes in the Senate is less clear.

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsTrump VA pick faces challenge to convince senators he’s ready for job GOP fractures over push to protect Russia probe Senate moves toward confirming deputy EPA head MORE (R-S.D.) warned that the legislation could backfire and wasn't a “good call.”

“I think it's kind of like taunting the president,” he said, “and I don't believe we need that at this time.”

A number of lawmakers are also warning Trump against firing Rosenstein, who has been a months-long target of the president’s ire because of his role overseeing the Russia investigation and for his decision to appoint Mueller.

“The consequences if he were to fire Rosenstein in order to find someone who would fire Robert Mueller would be catastrophic,” said Collins, adding that despite Trump’s “intemperate tweets” she doesn’t believe he’ll fire Mueller.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynRepublicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller Democrats mull audacious play to block Pompeo Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes MORE (R-Texas) said he’s seen no reason for Rosenstein to be fired. Asked if he would urge Trump not to fire him, the No. 2 Senate Republican hesitated before adding, “Yes.”

Many Republicans think it would be a mistake for Trump to fire Mueller or Rosenstein, believing it would create a political conflagration that could further hurt GOP efforts in the midterms.

Trump has reportedly been fuming since the FBI on Monday raided the office, residence and hotel room of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. The raid was based on a referral from Mueller’s team, and Rosenstein personally signed off on it. 

Trump appeared to temper himself, at least temporarily, in his public tweets on Thursday, saying that he has “historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller (Unlike the Clintons!).”

Cornyn stopped an elevator door from closing as a gaggle of reporters told him about Trump’s “positive” tweet about cooperating with the special counsel.

Yet Trump also met with Rosenstein at the White House on Thursday to talk about “routine [Justice] Department business.” Within hours of the meeting, CNN reported that the White House was preparing talking points to discredit Rosenstein and push for his recusal from the Russia investigation.

The Senate’s public pushback comes as conservatives in the House and outside of Congress are calling on Trump to shake up the Justice Department. 

Trump allies have blanketed the airwaves, ripping the Justice Department, Mueller and the FBI.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told Fox News that Rosenstein has “not done his job.” He also blasted the FBI for its raid on Cohen, saying “that's Stalin. That's the Gestapo in Germany. That shouldn't be the American FBI."

Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzYoung GOP lawmakers want more power GOP lawmakers demand Sessions investigate Clinton, Comey GOP Rep. Zeldin to lead call for second special counsel MORE (R-Fla.) said it would be “warranted” to make changes at the Justice Department.  

“I think there is a sufficient basis to fire Rosenstein in particular, and likely the attorney general for not doing his job,” he told Fox News. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesComey memo fallout is mostly fizzle Impeaching Rosenstein? Some Republicans are talking about it Trump claims vindication after release of Comey memos MORE (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, threatened to “impeach” Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray over their failure to produce documents requested by the panel.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley renews complaints about History Channel Republicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller The Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos MORE (R-Iowa) declined to comment on his House counterparts threats to impeach the No. 2 Justice Department official. But asked if he still supports Rosenstein, Grassley paused before saying, “Yeah, I think so.”

“But that doesn’t mean that I think he’s doing the right thing. I think all of Justice Department … do not keep their promise to us … [when] they make a statement when they’re up for confirmation. Will you answer our letters? Will you give us the information we want? They all turn out to be liars,” Grassley said, raising his voice to reporters.

Republicans leaders have been wary of breaking too publicly with Trump. Peppered with a stream of questions this week, they continued to insist that they didn't believe legislation on the special counsel was needed because they don't believe Trump will fire Mueller.

But the White House shifted its message on Mueller, raising eyebrows. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the White House had been advised that the president has the power to fire the special counsel. 

The New York Times also reported that Trump wanted to fire Mueller in December before ultimately backing down. Trump fired back against the publication, saying, "If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him. Just more Fake News from a biased newspaper!"

Despite the swirling controversy around Mueller’s investigation, GOP leaders said they didn’t even broach the topic at a dinner with Trump on Wednesday evening, underlining the sensitivity of the issue.

Cornyn, asked ahead of the meeting if he would bring the special counsel up, said he didn't think it would “be appropriate to talk about.”