McConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' Winners and losers in the border security deal House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Ariz.) clashed during a closed-door lunch meeting Thursday, with McConnell challenging Flake’s effort to force a vote on legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.  

McConnell pressured Flake to back off his strategy of blocking judicial nominees in the Senate Judiciary Committee in an effort to force a vote on his bill that would protect the special counsel from being fired without good cause. 

Flake, however, dug in his heels and made clear that he’s not going to budge. 

ADVERTISEMENT

McConnell was equally implacable, according to senators who witnessed the argument. 

“It’s a standoff,” said a Republican senator who attended the lunch. 

Their fight reflects a larger divide within the GOP conference. 

Some GOP senators argue the chamber should pass legislation to protect Mueller. 

Flake and Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham seeks new Rosenstein testimony after explosive McCabe interview Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general Graham demands testimony from former FBI acting Director McCabe MORE (R-S.C.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day A year since Parkland: we have a solution GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate MORE (R-N.C.) have co-sponsored legislation that would codify Justice Department rules requiring that a special counsel only be fired for good cause.

Critics, however, contend that there’s no danger of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could MORE firing Mueller and predict the bill would die in the GOP-controlled House. 

The fate of the Mueller investigation became a more pressing concern to some Republican senators after Trump forced Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMcCabe book: Sessions once said FBI was better off when it 'only hired Irishmen' Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general Rod Rosenstein’s final insult to Congress: Farewell time for reporters but not testimony MORE to resign immediately after the midterm elections. 

He then named Matthew Whitaker, Sessions's chief of staff and a critic of Mueller's Russia probe, to serve as acting attorney general. 

McConnell argued at the lunch meeting that the legislation would chew up precious floor time during the lame-duck session and leave less time for must-pass bills such as the unfinished spending bills and the farm bill, according to sources familiar with the conversation.

Flake, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, didn’t buy that argument. 

He replied that Democrats wouldn’t object to speedy consideration of the special counsel protection bill because their entire caucus supports it, sources said. 

Flake argued that the bill could be dealt with in a day as long as other members of the GOP conference didn’t object to it and force McConnell to waste time getting through a filibuster.

Some Republican senators floated the compromise of crafting some kind of nonbinding resolution that would express support for protecting Mueller and future special counsels from unjustified dismissal. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But Flake rejected that option, too. He argued that the Judiciary Committee passed the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act in April by a 14-7 vote and the Senate should act on it, instead of some nonbinding measure that hasn’t yet received committee review. 

Flake, a member of the Judiciary Committee, tried to force McConnell’s hand Thursday by saying he would continue to object to moving Trump’s judicial nominees to the floor unless the special counsel protection bill gets a vote. 

McConnell is telling colleagues he’s standing firm. 

Asked if there’s any chance that McConnell will let Flake have a vote, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneWill Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall Hillicon Valley: House panel takes on election security | DOJ watchdog eyes employee texts | Senate Dems urge regulators to block T-Mobile, Sprint deal | 'Romance scams' cost victims 3M in 2018 MORE (S.D.), who was elected Wednesday as the next Senate Republican whip, said, “I don’t think he has any intention at this point of going down that path.”

McConnell has stated repeatedly that there is no danger of Trump firing Mueller and says he supports the special counsel completing his investigation. 

Flake said after the lunch that while some colleagues have tried to pressure him, others have voiced support.

Asked Thursday if fellow GOP senators are unhappy with his hardball approach to getting a vote, Flake said, “That’s a safe assumption.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Grassley raises voice after McConnell interrupts Senate speech Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE (R-Iowa) held more than 15 judicial nominees at a committee business meeting Thursday after Flake declared he would block them. 

Speaking to reporters afterward, Grassley said he didn’t think he could move any more nominees without Flake’s support unless he can convince Democrats on the panel to vote with him. 

Republicans control 11 seats on the committee while the Democrats have 10. That means if Flake votes "no" and Democrats stay unified, Republicans can’t report nominees with favorable nominations.

McConnell could try to bring those nominees to the floor without committee approval, but it would break precedent and undermine the panel’s role. 

“That’s never been done as far as I know,” Grassley told reporters Thursday morning. “I don’t think that would be done.”

McConnell has made confirming Trump’s judicial nominees his top priority in 2018 and regularly touts how many judges the Senate has confirmed to federal appellate and district courts. 

Grassley suggested on Thursday that many of the nominees pending in committee might have to wait until next year and that the Senate should focus on the 35 nominees already passed out of committee. 

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia Dems seeking path to Senate majority zero-in on Sun Belt Lawmakers eager for 5G breakthrough MORE (R-Colo.) predicted that McConnell would find some way through the impasse because he places so much importance on nominees. 

“Mitch McConnell is a judicial nominations machine … so anything that’s going to slow that down he’s obviously going to [fix],” he said. 

Flake says there is growing support within his conference for passing a bill to protect Mueller. 

“Ultimately the pressure will build for us to bring this bill to the floor or to put it as part of the spending bill so it’s part of must-pass legislation,” he said.

Grassley, who voted for the special counsel protection bill on the committee level, said Thursday that it deserves a vote. 

“It’s legitimate that the bill be brought up,” he said. “It would satisfy me if it became law because I voted for it.”

Other Republican senators who have expressed support for legislation protecting Mueller and future special counsels from unjustified termination include Graham, Tillis, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration DOJ warns White House that national emergency will likely be blocked: report On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration GOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees Senate votes to extend key funding mechanism for parks MORE (Alaska), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSenators optimistic about reaching funding deal GOP senators read Pence riot act before shutdown votes On The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (Kan.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy MORE (Tenn.). 

“There are some who are not on the committee who will vote for this,” he said of Senate GOP colleagues. “It will pass on the floor.”

The legislation would codify existing Justice Department regulations requiring that the special counsel can only be fired for good cause by a Senate-confirmed department official.

It would also create a 10-day window for a judge to decide whether any termination of a special counsel is for good cause and stop the firing if it fails to meet the cause requirement.