McConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellEXCLUSIVE: Trump on reparations: 'I don't see it happening' Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeJeff Flake becoming Harvard fellow Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment 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 (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report 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. 

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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 GrahamTrump puts the cart before the horse in Palestine Negotiators face major obstacles to meeting July border deadline Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns MORE (R-S.C.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDemocratic challenger leads Tillis by 1 point in North Carolina poll GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner 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 TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question 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 SessionsTrump: Appointing Sessions was my biggest mistake Nikki Haley blasts Roy Moore's Senate bid: 'He does not represent our Republican Party' Time magazine: Trump threatened reporter with prison time 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. 

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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 ThuneHillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns GOP senators divided over approach to election security McSally on Moore running for Senate again: 'This place has enough creepy old men' 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 GrassleyGrassley raises concerns about objectivity of report critical of GOP tax law's effects Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Key Trump proposal to lower drug prices takes step forward 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 GardnerMcSally on Moore running for Senate again: 'This place has enough creepy old men' Hillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries Senate panel advances bill to protect government devices against cyber threats 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns Stephen King: 'It's time for Susan Collins to go' MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks Overnight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (Alaska), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (Kan.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment Jeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump 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.