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Dems race to protect Mueller probe

House Democrats are racing to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s Russia probe, and they’re not waiting until they assume the majority to do so.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDem leaders request formal update from DOJ on whether Whitaker should recuse himself House Dems preview plans to flex oversight muscles Top House Dems on investigative committees endorse Pelosi for Speaker MORE (D-Calif.) organized an emergency conference call on Thursday between rank-and-file Democrats and the top members on investigative committees to discuss President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Cohen: I pray Michelle Obama's words will unite country again Michelle Obama: ‘I stopped even trying to smile’ during Trump’s inauguration Trump wants to end federal relief money for Puerto Rico: report MORE’s decision to fire Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDem leaders request formal update from DOJ on whether Whitaker should recuse himself Christie: Trump has not asked me to be attorney general Pelosi: 'What Mueller might not think is indictable could be impeachable' MORE and replace him with an official who has repeatedly criticized the Mueller probe.

On the call, Democrats contemplated their next steps, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) warned members they are facing a “crisis moment.”

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After the call, Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, announced on CNN that Democrats may insist on including protections for the Russia probe in the next government funding bill, though such a demand could trigger a shutdown fight if they follow through.

“We can urge — and we will — that the bill I introduced that would protect the independence of the special counsel, saying he can only be dismissed for [due] cause ... We can insist that that be a condition of passage of the remaining legislation to fund the government,” Nadler said.

Calls for the GOP to hold emergency hearings and demands for the acting attorney general to recuse himself have so far gone unanswered, underscoring a harsh reality for Democrats: they are still in the minority for another two months and have little power.

Still, their efforts send a clear signal that Democrats are gearing up to make the issue a top investigative priority starting in January.

In an interview with The Hill, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse Dems preview plans to flex oversight muscles Top House Dems on investigative committees endorse Pelosi for Speaker Schiff: Acting AG 'will be called to answer' if he interferes with Mueller investigation MORE (Calif.), the Democrat likely to lead the House Intelligence Committee during the next Congress, is already signaling an interest in interviewing Sessions about his firing.

“On this particular question of what led up to his firing or what information he may have in terms of obstruction to justice, I think that will be of interest to not only our committee but the Judiciary Committee and others as well,” Schiff said.

Democrats are vowing to conduct rigorous oversight and hold the administration accountable, something they say the GOP failed to do.

“We have watched the Republican Majority abdicate it’s role of providing a check to abuses of power, and we must start holding people accountable for their actions,” a Judiciary Committee spokesman told The Hill in a statement when asked about Trump’s firing of Sessions.

Trump has repeatedly bashed Mueller’s probe as a "witch hunt," and his appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general has renewed fears that he wants to quash the investigation.

Trump has denied this, and called a question Friday about whether he wanted to rein in the probe a “stupid question.”

Whitaker has spoken of curbing funding for Mueller’s probe until it can’t move forward, among other criticisms.

Whitaker’s appointment represents a scenario Democrats have warned about: that Trump could replace Sessions, and by extension Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinDem leaders request formal update from DOJ on whether Whitaker should recuse himself How Trump can pull off ultimate trick to make Mueller disappear Dems race to protect Mueller probe MORE, who had been overseeing the matter, with someone more intent in hindering it.

Democrats are scrambling for answers.

There is growing chatter about trying to attach language to a must-pass spending bill that would protect the investigation by giving the special counsel an “expedited review” of their firing. Under that scenario, if a court determines that a firing wasn't for “good cause,” the special counsel would be reinstated.

Government funding for several agencies runs dry on Dec. 7.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a similar Mueller protection bill earlier this year, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress Momentum builds for Dems to take on campaign finance reform Will Trump be partisan brawler or smart dealmaker with Congress? MORE (R-Ky.) has refused to bring the legislation to a vote, stating that it is not necessary. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWithout new Democratic message, Donald Trump is the 2020 favorite Dems race to protect Mueller probe Proposed House GOP rules would force indicted lawmakers to step down from leader roles: report MORE (R-Wis.) has echoed a similar message.

Pelosi brought up the idea of attaching Mueller protections to a government funding package during an interview with CNN on Thursday night.

“Leader Schumer and I, early on, had called upon our leadership counterparts to include [on] our appropriations bill legislation that would say that the counsel cannot be fired without due cause,” Pelosi said.

McConnell on Friday repeated his opposition to such legislation, which he said was unnecessary.

Democrats also sent a flurry of letters this week to Whitaker and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteDems race to protect Mueller probe House Dems hold emergency conference call on Sessions ouster Marijuana was a big winner on Election Day MORE (R-Va.) demanding the preservation of critical documents and seeking answers about Sessions’s firing. They want to know how the shake-up at the highest level of the Justice Department will impact the special counsel’s investigation.

They are also increasingly interested in examining the circumstances surrounding Trump’s appointment of Whitaker, whom the president recently denied knowing personally.

“We can do several things,” Nadler said on CNN. “We have already sent letters to a lot of people in the Justice Department demanding preservation of all relevant documents. Destruction of those documents would be a crime after that notice.”

Across the Capitol, some Senate Democrats are considering suing the administration over Whitaker’s appointment, though an aide warned that they are still researching the idea.

“We are actively thinking about what a possible legal challenge would look like in this case,” said one Democratic aide. “I would flag this is definitely still in the beginning stages.”

While Democrats warn it is possible Whitaker could order the probe to prematurely come to a close now in his new supervisory position, it is also possible that Mueller is in the process of wrapping up his investigation —  a move that may come before House Democrats assume power.

Recent reports signal that the probe may be close to concluding. CNN reported this week that the special counsel is starting to work on the team’s final report based on the investigation’s findings, a move that comes as the president is reportedly reviewing the written answers he plans to submit to the special counsel.

But even if the probe wraps up soon, Democrats — who are itching to use their subpoena powers to investigate the Trump administration next year — are promising to keep the issue in the spotlight. They are planning to examine the matter through holding congressional hearings, demanding relevant records and seeking witness testimonies — including possibly hauling in Sessions.

“We certainly need to know whether the acting attorney general, however long he is in that position, was forced to commit to refuse recusal,” said Schiff, who was spotted ducking in and out of the Democratic cloakroom off the House floor on Thursday, even though Congress is not in session.

“We also need to make sure that none of the information presented to the attorney general about the investigation was shared with the president,” he said in remarks suggesting that Whitaker could leak information to Trump.

Jordain Carney contributed.