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 GrahamSunday shows preview: 2020 candidates look to South Carolina Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Barr to attend Senate GOP lunch on Tuesday 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 TillisThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Nevada Top GOP super PAC spent money on NC Democrat The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren up, Bloomberg down after brutal debate 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerWhite House preparing to ask Congress for funds to combat coronavirus: report Schumer cites security, DHS ban in questioning TSA use of TikTok Russian interference reports rock Capitol Hill 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 LeahyDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' Pentagon transferring .8 billion to border wall MORE (Vt.), Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedLawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Pavlich: The Senate defends its integrity Five Senate Democrats make impeachment case in Spanish MORE (R.I.), Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenate report says Obama officials were 'not well-postured' to respond to Russian hacking Democratic senators ask banks to prohibit funding Arctic drilling Senate drama surrounding Trump trial starts to fizzle 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 John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll 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 McConnellSanders is a risk, not a winner Buttigieg sounds alarm after Sanders wins Nevada Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan says he disagrees with Romney's impeachment vote Trump doubles down on Neil Cavuto attacks: 'Will he get the same treatment as' Shep Smith? Trump lashes out at Fox News coverage: 'I won every one of my debates' 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 ClintonEx-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community Meghan McCain after Gaetz says Trump should pardon Roger Stone: 'Oh come on' Enlightening the pardon power 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.