Senate GOP wary of ending Russia probes, despite pressure

Senate GOP wary of ending Russia probes, despite pressure
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are showing no signs they will wrap up their Russia investigations soon despite pressure from the White House. 

They’re also pushing back on the prospect that President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE will fire special counsel Robert Mueller, which they fear would spark a backlash that could hurt the GOP in next fall’s midterm elections. 

“Everybody knows that if Trump fired Mueller it would be interpreted by everybody who writes about this as evidence that he’s done something wrong,” said a strategist close to the Senate GOP leadership.

Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynAbbott bows to Trump pressure on Texas election audit Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook Democrats up ante in risky debt ceiling fight MORE (Texas), a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said on ABC’s “This Week” that it would be a “mistake” to fire Mueller.

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The Judiciary panel led by Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley announces reelection bid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B MORE (R-Iowa) is also conducting an investigation. The Judiciary Committee’s work has been slowed by the reluctance of the administration to share documents and a dispute between Grassley and Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFederal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap MORE (D-Calif.) over its focus.

“We have to go until we get done with it,” Grassley said Monday. “What’s frustrating here for me is we’re getting these instances where people can get information under [the Freedom of Information Act] faster than we can.”

Grassley agreed with Cornyn that Trump shouldn’t fire Mueller, but also said he doesn’t think the president will dismiss the special counsel.

“I think there are people raising this issue just to bring visibility and to test him for political reasons,” he said.

While there are indications that the House Intelligence Committee is getting close to completing its work, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks GOP senators say Biden COVID-19 strategy has 'exacerbated vaccine hesitancy' Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam MORE (R-N.C.), who initially wanted to complete his probe by the end of the year, says he still has dozens of witnesses to interview in private.

Senate Republicans believe it would be counterproductive to pressure a quick end to the investigations, the strategist said.

So far, no smoking-gun evidence has emerged implicating the president of colluding with Russia, although former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDOJ investigating one-time Trump campaign adviser over alleged ties to Qatar: report Foreign lobbyists donated over M during 2020 election: report Former Mueller prosecutor representing Donoghue in congressional probes: report MORE and former national security adviser Michael Flynn have been charged with crimes. Flynn and another campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, are cooperating with Mueller’s probe.

Nonetheless, many Republicans still hope Mueller will resolve allegations that Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to defeat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE.

They say the best way to end the controversy is to let the facts come to light.

The political strategy also reflects the fact that Senate Republicans want to project some independence from Trump. After losing Virginia’s gubernatorial race and seeing an upset in Alabama’s Senate election last week, there are fears that anger with Trump could sink GOP majorities in the House and Senate in 2018.

At the same time, Senate Republicans have joined members of the House in laying out the beginnings of a public argument that could be used against Mueller and his team if they do find that Trump colluded.

The strategist says Trump and his Republican allies have gained political leverage in recent weeks by the disclosure that Mueller removed a senior investigator, Peter Strzok, from his team after learning of disparaging statements he made about Trump during the campaign.

Members of Mueller’s investigative team have also drawn criticism for making political donations to Clinton’s presidential campaign and to other Democrats. Some gave money to Republicans, but the overwhelming majority went to Democrats.

Instead of encouraging Trump to fire Mueller or pressing for the Russia investigations to end in the next few weeks, Senate Republicans have chipped away at Mueller’s credibility, which might soften the political blow if he issues a damning report on the activities of Trump’s campaign and inner circle.

Cornyn tweeted over the weekend that he would wait to see what Mueller finds before passing judgment on the investigation. But he also fired a warning shot by urging Mueller to “clean house of partisans.”

“Everybody’s been forced to admit that Mueller’s team is stacked with the worst kind of partisans and you have the phone records to prove it,” said the strategist. 

The strategist said these reports have been damaging to Mueller, but that firing the special counsel could undo that progress. 

“Why would you want to undermine a monthlong drumbeat of evidence that this effort is compromised by going out there and creating a completely different narrative?” the strategist said.

Other Senate Republicans in addition to Cornyn have raised questions over whether Mueller’s team has a political bias.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordCOVID faith: Are your religious views 'sincerely held'? Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Afghan evacuation still frustrates GOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops MORE (R-Okla.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” over the weekend that “it’s serious any time you have an investigator within an investigation [who] has an obvious political bias, whichever direction that goes.”

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntRoy Blunt has helped forge and fortify the shared bonds between Australia and America The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B MORE (R-Mo.), another member of the Intelligence panel, told The Washington Post last week that he was “concerned” that Mueller “couldn’t put a team together that wasn’t so overwhelmingly on one side of the ideological spectrum.”

Judiciary panel Republicans have delved into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email controversy and into the Obama administration’s approval of a controversial uranium deal with Russia while Clinton was serving as secretary of State, another effort that could muddy the waters.