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Key Republicans hedge on protecting Mueller from Trump

To protect the integrity of the Russia investigation, Special Counsel Robert Mueller may need protection from Donald Trump. Do GOP lawmakers care?
Image: Robert Mueller
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee during the annual open hearing on worldwide threats on Capitol Hill in...

When multiple news organizations confirmed that Donald Trump took steps to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a Washington Post  analysis noted that the revelation "will create fresh momentum for Congress to take up bipartisan bills to protect Mueller."

And in theory, that makes sense. A separate Washington Post  piece added that the president targeting Mueller 'has long been a red line" for most congressional Republicans, though they'd prefer not to act on it. The question is whether "they may be forced to" act in light of new revelations.

There are two bills in Congress, both of which have some Republican support, that would protect Mueller from being fired by Trump. But neither bill has been seriously considered by leadership.Up until this point, Republicans had given Trump the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn't launch a constitutional crisis. From their perspective, why take action and cause a confrontation with the president (and jeopardize their agenda) if they don't absolutely have to? Now they may have to.

At least a few GOP officials seem to agree. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), for example, said yesterday that she's inclined to support bipartisan legislation to shield Mueller from the White House. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the author of one of the pending measures, went further, saying he's still on board with his bill, which he'd be "glad" to vote for "tomorrow."

Their views, however, don't reflect a Republican consensus. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a key ally of this president, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" has said he has "not heard" about Trump ordering Mueller's ouster and doesn't see the "need" to protect the special counsel.

As Politico  noted, this seems to be the common view among many Republicans on Capitol Hill right now.

Robert Mueller found little momentum Friday, despite reports Trump attempted to remove the man investigating his campaign's contacts with Russia last year.Democrats described new urgency to protect Mueller after news that Trump ordered top White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire the special counsel, who is also investigating whether Trump has attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation. But the Republicans who control Congress kept mostly silent about the prospect of another attempted Mueller firing -- and about the future of two bipartisan bills designed to prevent it.There's no rush, Republicans say, because they don't see an ongoing threat by Trump to fire Mueller.

Among those who've become passive on the issue is Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who was a co-sponsor of a bipartisan measure to protect Mueller, but who's now in no hurry to advance his own proposal. (Let's note for context that Trump personally contacted the North Carolina Republican about his bill to shield Mueller. Perhaps the presidential lobbying paid off.)

For what it's worth, the there's-no-reason-to-hurry line strikes me as odd. Confronted with the possibility that Trump might try to derail the investigation by taking steps to oust Mueller -- steps he's apparently already tried and lied about -- several GOP lawmakers were prepared last summer to act preemptively in the hopes of preventing a crisis.

Those efforts, we now know, stalled as Republicans turned their attention elsewhere. But with the president now facing increasingly obvious legal jeopardy, and the need to protect the process more acute, many in the GOP are convinced it's not the right time to act.

But when would be the right time? After Mueller is removed?

If this was a "red line" for Republicans, how sure are we that this is still the case? Or more to the point, if Trump were to order Mueller's ouster today, who can say with confidence that Congress' GOP majority would do anything of any consequence?

Postscript: While it appears the vast majority of Democrats want to protect the special counsel, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) appears far less concerned about Mueller's fate. The conservative Democrat told CNN's Jake tapper, "You know, people from New York have a different way of talking and speaking. And I take that, you know, literally as, OK, he blew off about some things."

I'm not at all sure what that means, though it doesn't sound as if Manchin will be leading the charge to shield the investigation from White House interference.