Pressure mounts on GOP leaders to back special counsel

Pressure mounts on GOP leaders to back special counsel
© Greg Nash

Pressure is growing on Republican leaders to support a special prosecutor to investigate contacts between Donald Trump's presidential campaign, transition team and Russian intelligence agents.

Some Republican lawmakers say a special prosecutor may be warranted, depending on what facts emerge regarding ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

They say evidence indicating that Trump advisers broke the law may necessitate special counsel — but so far nothing has reached that threshold.

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Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, floated the possibility of a special prosecutor at a CNN town hall on Wednesday night.

“There may be nothing there,” Graham said. “But if there is something there that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor.”

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-N.C.) said it might make sense to bring in a special prosecutor should more facts come to light.

“We’ll let the facts speak for themselves,” he said, adding that the Trump administration needs to be sensitive to appearances of conflict of interest.

“You just want to nip that because we don’t want this to be a distraction at the expense of so many things that need to be corrected at the Department of Justice,” Tillis said.

Democrats are turning up the heat, arguing that no one at the DOJ who answers to the president could be expected to act with complete impartiality.

“The Justice Department must immediately appoint a special prosecutor,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck Schumer84 mayors call for immigration to be included in reconciliation Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE (N.Y.) told reporters Thursday morning.

He said that person should be “beyond reproach, completely impartial, without any significant ties to either political party.”

Schumer noted that Justice Department guidelines call for a special prosecutor when a standard of investigation “would present a conflict of interest for the department or other extraordinary circumstances.”

“The most important thing we must do is ensure the integrity of the investigation,” he said.

“Has it already been compromised? What can we do to ensure it moves forward in a way that ultimately leads to the unvarnished truth?” he asked.

Other Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act National Guard cancels trainings after Congress fails to reimburse for Capitol riot deployment MORE (Vt.), Jack ReedJack ReedSenate panel votes to make women register for draft Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (R.I.), Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenate panel advances controversial public lands nominee in tie vote A plan to address the growing orphaned wells crisis Schumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' MORE (N.M.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), echoed the call for a special prosecutor.

Newly elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, a former Labor secretary during the Obama administration, said, “Trump’s Department of Justice has proven incapable of pursuing an independent investigation” into possibly improper ties between the administration and Russia.

Sessions held a press conference Thursday afternoon to announce that he would follow the recommendations of staff and recuse himself from any investigation into Russian ties to the administration.

Justice Department guidelines state that no employee may participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he or she has a personal or political relationship with the subject of the probe or prosecution.

Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump and advised his campaign.

His statement of recusal came hours after several prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill urged him to step aside, following a Wednesday night Washington Post report that he had two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Sessions testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Those statements, which Sessions tried to explain at his press conference, prompted Democratic accusations that he misled Congress and may have perjured himself.

With Sessions on the sidelines, lawmakers are now turning to the tricky question of who should handle the investigation.

The recusal puts acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, whom President Obama appointed twice to U.S. attorney jobs, in charge of the Justice Department — at least in the short term.

Democrats argued it would be unacceptable for Boente to oversee the investigation, arguing he is still in the “chain of command” at the Justice Department and could be subject to political influence from the White House.

“While Mr. Boente doesn't have the long political ties to President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE, he is still in the President’s chain of command and could be fired at will by the President, who has already fired the first person in this position,” Schumer said in a statement after Sessions recused himself.

“The DOJ regulations clearly require the appointment of a special prosecutor and the administration shouldn't ignore clear regulations a second time,” he added.

Trump’s deputy attorney general nominee, Rod Rosenstein, faces the Judiciary Committee next week and may ultimately make decisions about a DOJ probe once confirmed. Democrats have yet to discuss the possibility of Rosenstein taking over the probe.

If Boente declines to follow Democrats’ exhortations, they say they will pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios House rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece Cutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis MORE (R-Wis.) to support legislation that would empower a panel of judges to choose a special prosecutor.

Congress passed the Independent Counsel statute as part of the reforms enacted after the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

The law required the attorney general to conduct preliminary investigations into allegations against high-level government officials and to refer the case to a three-judge court to appoint an independent counsel if deemed necessary.

It expired in 1999, after Democrats felt that independent counsel Ken Starr abused his power during his investigation into President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFor families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football Anything-but-bipartisan 1/6 commission will seal Pelosi's retirement. Here's why Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE.

Schumer said if Boente doesn’t appoint a special counsel, Democrats will ask Republicans to pass a new version of the law with safeguards to prevent the kind of runaway investigation that many Democrats thought Starr was guilty of in the 1990s.

The issue is likely to surface Tuesday at the Judiciary Committee hearings on Rosenstein, the current U.S. attorney for Maryland.

The committee is also expected to consider Rachel Brand, Trump’s pick to serve as associate attorney general.

Both nominees require Senate confirmation, and Democrats could use that as leverage to push for the appointment of a special prosecutor.