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 PelosiHouse Dems unveil measure to reject anti-Israel boycotts Freshman Dems to meet with Obama next week The Hill's Morning Report - Trump's intraparty feuds divide Republicans 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 TrumpClinton and Ocasio-Cortez joke about Kushner's alleged use of WhatsApp Missouri Gov. declares state of emergency amid severe flooding Swalwell on Hicks testimony: 'She's going to have to tell us who she lied for' in Trump admin MORE’s decision to fire Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsJeff Sessions returns to Justice Department to retrieve Cabinet chair Rosenstein still working at DOJ despite plans to leave in mid-March Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump 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 SchiffHillicon Valley: Kushner accused of using WhatsApp, personal email for official work | White House rejects request for Trump-Putin communications | Facebook left 'hundreds of millions' of passwords unsecured | Tech pressured to root out extremism Five things to watch for as White House readies for Mueller report White House rejects Dem request for documents on Trump-Putin communications 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 RosensteinJeff Sessions returns to Justice Department to retrieve Cabinet chair The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump steps up attacks on McCain Rosenstein still working at DOJ despite plans to leave in mid-March 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 McConnellTrump keeps up attacks on 'horrible' McCain, despite calls from GOP, veterans Rock the Vote President says Dem reform bill 'shines a light' on dark money The Hill's Morning Report - Trump's intraparty feuds divide Republicans MORE (R-Ky.) has refused to bring the legislation to a vote, stating that it is not necessary. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFormer Dem candidate says he faced cultural barriers on the campaign trail because he is working-class Former House candidate and ex-ironworker says there is 'buyer's remorse' for Trump in Midwest Head of top hedge fund association to step down 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 GoodlatteTop Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview It’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling 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.