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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 TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' 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 CornynSenate GOP signals it's likely to acquit Trump for second time Bush-, Obama-era officials urge Senate to swiftly confirm Biden's DHS pick Senate committee advances Biden's DHS pick despite Republican pushback 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 GrassleySenate sworn in as jurors for Trump impeachment trial GOP digs in on preserving Trump tax cuts On The Money: Treasury announces efforts to help people get stimulus payments | Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury | Judge sets ground rules for release of Trump taxes 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 FeinsteinBush-, Obama-era officials urge Senate to swiftly confirm Biden's DHS pick Senate committee advances Biden's DHS pick despite Republican pushback Hillicon Valley: Intelligence agency gathers US smartphone location data without warrants, memo says | Democrats seek answers on impact of Russian hack on DOJ, courts | Airbnb offers Biden administration help with vaccine distribution 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 BurrDemocrat Jeff Jackson jumps into North Carolina Senate race Portman's exit underscores Republican identity crisis Portman planned exit sets off Ohio free-for-all 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 ManafortWould Trump have gotten away with a self-pardon? History will never know Trump's pardons harshly criticized by legal experts Presidential pardons need to go 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 ClintonEverytown urges Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to resign over newly uncovered remarks Marjorie Taylor Greene expressed support on Facebook for violence against Democrats McConnell last spoke to Trump on Dec. 15 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 LankfordHawley files ethics counter-complaint against seven Democratic senators Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury The Hill's 12:30 Report: What to expect for inauguration 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 BluntJust five GOP senators vote Trump impeachment trial is constitutional Trump, allies raise pressure on Senate GOP ahead of impeachment This week: Senate stuck in limbo 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.