Russia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement

Russia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement
© Greg Nash

The surprise decision to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the FBI's investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election is throwing ongoing congressional probes into limbo.

Senators are scrambling to figure out what Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to name former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel means for their own investigations.

Lawmakers have been working for months to sort through documents and line up interviews with former Trump officials and have even issued a subpoena against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned earlier this year.

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“I think it pretty well at a minimum limits it, maybe just takes us out of the game,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamYates spars with GOP at testy hearing Trump knocks Sally Yates ahead of congressional testimony Republicans uncomfortably playing defense MORE (R-S.C.) said Thursday. "It’s going to be hard for us. … Public access to what happened is going to be very limited now because of a special counsel and I don’t want to get in his way."

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsThe Global Fragility Act provides the tools to address long-term impacts of COVID Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Thomas Isett Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Dr. Kate Broderick MORE (D-Del.) added his “concern is that we do not end up in a place where the special counsel doesn’t communicate with Congress for months or years.”

Graham and Coons are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of four congressional committees digging into Russia’s election interference and possible ties to Trump campaign officials. The Senate Intelligence, House Intelligence and House Oversight committees are also conducting investigations.

Senators raised questions about how they might coordinate their investigations with the FBI and Justice Department probes with Rosenstein during a closed-door briefing Thursday.

Mueller is effectively taking over an ongoing FBI investigation into Russia's election meddling and any contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

But his special prosecutor title leaves him largely unaccountable to Congress, raising concerns among lawmakers that he could limit what documents the congressional investigations receive or who can appear before their committees.

“There were a number of members of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees that raised concerns about access to information, and the processes that would be put in place to expeditiously get that information,” Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyHillicon Valley: NSA warns of new security threats | Teen accused of Twitter hack pleads not guilty | Experts warn of mail-in voting misinformation Merkley, Sanders introduce bill limiting corporate facial recognition Portland protesters clash with law enforcement for first time since federal presence diminished MORE (D-Ore.) told reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Leadership in both parties, as well as top lawmakers on the committees running the investigations, quickly threw their support behind continuing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms States begin removing Capitol's Confederate statues on their own Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (R-Ky.) has repeatedly argued publicly that a special prosecutor wasn’t needed and that he supported the probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he is an ex officio member of as the chamber’s top Republican.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats seek to exploit Trump-GOP tensions in COVID-19 talks The Hill's Campaign Report: Who will Biden pick to be his running mate? Don't count out Duckworth in Biden VP race MORE (D-Ill.) noted that McConnell was one of the first members to ask Rosenstein about how to coordinate the investigations during Thursday’s meeting.

Washington has a long history of naming special counsel to dig into White House controversies. Former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA political hero is born in Ohio: America needs more Tyler Ferhmans Presidents, crises and revelations Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold MORE’s administration was plagued by yearslong investigations, ultimately leading to his impeachment trial five years later. 

Republicans also wanted special counsel to look into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  MORE's private email server, even though Congress had its own investigation.

Senators stressed that they’re still in the game in the wake of Rosenstein's decision.

"We still have an extremely important role to play," Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsAnalysis finds record high number of woman versus woman congressional races Group of GOP senators back more money for airlines to pay workers Republicans uncomfortably playing defense MORE (R-Maine) told MSNBC. "Our investigation is really important because it is, it will be in public. His won't. And we need a far broader set of the facts to come out.”

Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag Hillicon Valley: Google extending remote work policy through July 2021 | Intel community returns final Russia report to Senate committee after declassification | Study finds election officials vulnerable to cyberattacks Intel community returns final Russia report volume to Senate after declassification review MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns Senate Intel panel approves final Russia report, moves toward public release MORE (D-Va.), the chairman and vice chairman respectively of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also signaled that their committee's probe would continue to move forward in the immediate wake of Rosenstein's announcement. 

Warner said on Thursday afternoon that he and Burr want to sit down with Mueller as soon as next week to try to “deconflict” the jurisdictional boundaries of their investigations.

“In many ways our purview is broader than what may be some of the Justice Department/FBI investigation," he told reporters, defending the need to continue the congressional investigations.

Mueller was given control of the investigation into any coordination between the campaign and Russia but also any other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” — such as FBI Director James Comey’s dismissal.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also struggled to get Flynn to comply with its investigation. It is unclear what, if anything, lawmakers could do to force him to meet with the committee.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns Tensions flare as GOP's Biden probe ramps up  Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal MORE (D-Ore.) said he would “go to the mat” to make sure the subpoena was followed, but Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinYates spars with GOP at testy hearing Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks Mini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors MORE (D-Calif.), the former chairwoman of the committee, hedged, telling reporters, “Frankly, he has rights.”

Graham echoed Feinstein, saying Flynn has a “Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.” 

“If I were his lawyer I would probably be making the argument that if I’m under criminal investigation, you cannot force me to compromise myself,” he added. 

Senators also appeared uncertain on Thursday about what the Mueller pick meant for their push for Comey to testify publicly.

Lawmakers were already locked in a turf war over who would get Comey’s first public comments since he was fired. 

"It looks like there's a little competition for jurisdiction, but truthfully both the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee have some say in all of that," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is a member of both committees.

The Judiciary Committee has requested any memos from Comey and any White House records of his conversations with Trump. Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions MORE (R-Iowa), who oversees the committee, said it would go forward with those requests.

But Graham signaled on Thursday that he wasn’t sure Comey would be able to come speak before Congress, specifying that he hasn’t yet heard from from the former FBI director.

“I don’t know if, one, if he wants to, [but] he has a reason now because there's a special counsel,” Graham told reporters. “It probably shuts us down”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added, “I don’t know the answer to that. I can’t tell you. I understand what Lindsey’s saying. I would like to hear from Comey.”

“We're gonna have to put him on a milk carton,” Graham said. “'Have you seen this man?'"