Senate battle lines harden in FBI fight

Senate battle lines harden in FBI fight
© Greg Nash

Democratic senators are digging in ahead of a looming showdown over President Trump’s pick to lead the FBI. 

Trump could announce his nominee to head the embattled agency as soon as this week. The move is expected to spark what is shaping up to be a partisan showdown in the wake of James Comey’s firing — a decision that roiled much of Washington. 

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Democrats are already pledging to use hardball tactics to get a special prosecutor to oversee the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election. However, if Republicans unify around Trump’s selection, Democrats don’t have the votes to block the nominee

Regardless, a growing number of Democratic senators are signaling they are open to delaying the next FBI director until they get the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor.

“I think it’s very important that the first step be the appointment of a special prosecutor. That is the only way that the American public can have confidence in the justice system,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said on MSNBC on Monday. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerTo save the Postal Service, bring it online White House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Schumer declines to say whether Trump executive orders are legal: They don't 'do the job' MORE (D-N.Y.) said over the weekend that he backs a special prosecutor, adding, “I think there are a lot of Democrats who feel that way.”

Democrats have demanded an independent counsel for months, but in the wake of Comey’s firing — only the second time an FBI director has been let go for cause — their demands are reaching a fever pitch. 

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing Vermont has a chance to show how bipartisanship can tackle systemic racism MORE (D-Vt.), the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Trump’s statements have put whomever he picks in a politically unenviable position.  

“The new FBI director has to say we’ll have an independent investigation,” he said. “The president has already said his standard for FBI director is he has to be loyal. … It puts the FBI director in an impossible position. That’s why you need a special prosecutor.” 

They argue that the FBI’s investigation could be “tainted” because of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence FBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book Tuberville breaks DC self-quarantine policy to campaign MORE’s role in the decision to fire Comey and pick his replacement despite recusing himself from any involvement in the Russia investigation.

A partisan fight would be a break from the traditionally bipartisan support for an FBI director and is already threatening to eat up the Senate’s limited bandwidth and overshadow two of the GOP’s biggest priorities: healthcare and tax reform. 

It took Comey — who was approved 93-1 — nearly two months to be confirmed in 2013 after being nominated by former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPandemic preparedness and response under a different president Wall Street Journal: Trump stretched law with executive orders, like Obama Trump's contempt for advice and consent MORE

Democrats are warning that they could pull out all of the procedural stops for Comey’s successor. 

They have multiple tools to slow walk Trump’s nominee, including delaying a vote in the Judiciary Committee and dragging out debate on the Senate floor. They’ve also signaled they are willing to jam up the Senate by blocking routine committee requests to push Republicans.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans support having a special prosecutor or independent commission oversee the investigation, which also includes potential ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia, according to a recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll. 

Yet Republicans have a 52-seat majority in the upper chamber and can lose up to two GOP senators, allowing Vice President Pence to break a tie. 

Democrats would also need to stop any red-state Democrats, such as Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic MORE (D-W.Va.), from supporting Trump’s nominee. Republicans will likely target the 10 Democrats up for reelection next year in states carried by Trump.

Democrats — under intense pressure from the left to oppose Trump’s entire agenda  — are also warning that a current lawmaker shouldn’t expect a glide path to confirmation, a veiled warning against picking John CornynJohn CornynCOVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance From a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, who interviewed for the job over the weekend.   

Asked hypothetically if he could support any of Trump’s floated nominees if Democrats got a special prosecutor, Van Hollen stressed that the president’s pick needed to be nonpartisan. 

“We have to have someone at the helm of the FBI that is not connected to partisan politics in any way. In my view, that would mean it should not be somebody that is a current or former member of Congress,” he said. 

Democratic Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Democrats seek to exploit Trump-GOP tensions in COVID-19 talks Liability shield fight threatens to blow up relief talks MORE (R.I.) made similar comments in the wake of Comey’s firing, a break with the Senate’s traditionally clubby atmosphere. 

Democrats could get some help on that demand. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSeveral GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE (R-S.C.) specifically called out Cornyn, telling NBC News that under normal circumstances, he would “be a superb choice to be FBI director. But these are not normal circumstances.”  

Cornyn was tight-lipped on Monday about his meeting, characterizing it as a “chat among friends” and telling reporters that he doesn’t currently have any followup interviews scheduled. Cornyn’s position as GOP whip is term-limited and will expire at the end of this Congress.

But Democrats’ push for a special prosecutor has failed to gain traction with Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill No signs of breakthrough for stalemated coronavirus talks State aid emerges as major hurdle to reviving COVID-19 talks MORE (R-Ky.) signaled in the wake of Comey’s firing that he remains strongly opposed to a special prosecutor.

Despite the political backlash, firing Comey has had little immediate impact on Trump’s already low approval ratings. Thirty-nine percent of Americans approve of Trump, according to the NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll that was conducted after the decision, only 1 percentage point lower than the April poll. 

Instead, Republicans want Trump to move quickly to fill the critical national security post and warn Democrats against overplaying their hand after largely helping confirm Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. 

“That would basically be inconsistent with that bipartisan vote of confidence for [Rosenstein],” Cornyn said when asked about Democratic threats to slow walk.

Rosenstein will have to make the decision about whether to pursue any prosecutions stemming out of the FBI’s investigation. 

Asked about Democrats’ threats, Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, noted that Democrats had taken a tough line on most Trump nominees. 

“It’s not a surprise that they’d want to prevent the FBI from having a new leader, too, in the middle of terrorist threats here and around the globe,” he said. 

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump says he'll accept nomination from either White House or Gettysburg Meadows says he wants Trump nomination speech 'miles and miles away' from White House The Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package MORE (R-S.D.), another member of leadership, argued the Democratic effort is a nonstarter.

“You’ve got to have the votes,” Thune said of the push to hold up the nominee. “I assume, when it’s time to vote, we’ll have the votes.”