By MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said Wednesday that he won’t vote to confirm judicial nominees unless GOP leaders hold a vote on legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired.
Flake of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware went to the Senate floor on Wednesday and tried to bring the legislation up for a vote. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell objected. McConnell has said that the legislation is unnecessary because he believes Mueller won’t be fired.
Flake and Coons called for the vote in the wake of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ departure. President Donald Trump pushed Sessions out last week and temporarily replaced him with a loyalist, Matt Whitaker, who has criticized the Mueller investigation. The special counsel’s probe is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Russian ties to Trump’s Republican campaign.
“This is not a moment for our leadership to be weak or irresolute or compromised in any way,” Flake said, adding that “the president now has this investigation in his sights and we all know it.”
He said the appointment of Whitaker was a “blatant” move that increased the urgency for the legislation.
Flake, who retires in January, said he wouldn’t vote to confirm judges on the Senate floor or to advance them out of committee until there was a vote on the Mueller bill. He said he’d continue to come to the Senate floor to call for one.
McConnell objected without comment. But he said earlier Wednesday that he’s never heard anyone at the White House suggest they want to shut the investigation down.
“I think it’s in no danger, so I don’t think any legislation is necessary,” McConnell said.
The move by Flake and Coons comes more than a year after the bipartisan legislation was introduced and underscores the deep concerns many lawmakers have long had over Trump’s comments about Mueller’s investigation. Trump has repeatedly called the probe a “hoax” and leveled personal criticism at the former FBI director. Those concerns were only amplified after Trump appointed Whitaker as acting attorney general.
Whitaker is now overseeing the probe, which had previously been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein told Congress that he saw no reason to fire Mueller.
Sessions had recused himself from overseeing Mueller because he worked on Trump’s campaign — a decision that infuriated Trump and led to Sessions’ resignation.
Several other Republicans have said they would vote for the special counsel bill. They include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and the legislation’s GOP co-sponsors, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis.
Democrats, who will take the House majority in January, have also said shielding Mueller’s investigation will be one of their top priorities. Along with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, they have called for the special counsel bill to be added to a year-end spending bill that must pass in December to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The bipartisan legislation to protect Mueller was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in April. It would give any special counsel a 10-day window to seek expedited judicial review of a firing and put into law existing Justice Department regulations that a special counsel can only be fired for good cause.
Despite some GOP support, it’s unclear if the measure could gain 60 votes in the Senate — and even less clear that Trump would sign a bill that contained the legislation. Flake and Coons said they were certain they could get 60 votes and noted that Trump has changed his mind on legislation before.
On Tuesday, Grassley said that he would leave the decision up to McConnell but that “if it comes to a vote, I will vote for that bill.” Graham, who is close to Trump, said he doesn’t expect Mueller to be fired, “but it would probably be good to have this legislation in place just for the future.” Tillis said he was talking to other senators about how they might be able to get it done.
Collins said passage of the bill would “send a powerful message that Mr. Mueller must be able to complete his work unimpeded.”
Mueller’s investigation has already resulted in six guilty pleas, a trial conviction and pending charges against more than two dozen others, including Russian intelligence officers.
According to a new court filing Wednesday, the investigation could go on for several more months. Prosecutors say they’re not ready for Trump campaign aide Rick Gates to be sentenced because he is continuing to cooperate with “several ongoing investigations.” And they’re asking a federal judge to give them until mid-January to offer another update about his case.
Gates pleaded guilty this year to two felonies as part of the probe. Gates’ mentor, ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, was convicted this year on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. He is also cooperating.
Associated Press writers Chad Day and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.