Republican senators resist Democrats’ call for special counsel on Russia

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Protesters rally outside the White House against President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are unified in rejecting calls for a special counsel to take over the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election, even as some take a critical tone against the president’s abrupt firing of FBI Director Jim Comey.

Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are just as united in demanding one. “It is the overwhelming view of my caucus that a special prosecutor should now be appointed to conduct the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia,” Schumer said Wednesday. Schumer added that a career Justice Department official — not a political appointee like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — should make the appointment of the special counsel.

But Republicans, even those critical of President Trump for firing the FBI director while he was investigating ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, are not biting — at least not for now. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told a CNN reporter at least six Republicans privately support either a select committee or special counsel to look into the Russia claims, and it’s possible that more information could come out about Comey’s firing that would change their positions.

“Today we’ll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

Several Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is leading its own probe into Russia, echoed McConnell, saying a special counsel at the Justice Department would get in the way of their investigation, which has been criticized for being understaffed and slow.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

“We will issue a report that will contain facts and then at that point people can make a decision, including the American public, about whether or not based on those facts an inquiry from a law enforcement perspective is warranted,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters. “If we were to appoint a special prosecutor today [it would] probably shut down our ability to do our work because a significant amount of information would now be denied on the basis of an ongoing investigation.”

The chair of the Senate committee, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has been more critical than most of his colleagues in questioning the timing of Trump’s decision to fire Comey. He invited Comey to testify at a closed hearing next week so members can question him about the status of the FBI’s investigation at the time he was let go.

But Burr split with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner D-Va., who said Comey’s firing in the middle of the investigation calls for the appointment of a special counsel. Burr told reporters his committee is the best place to handle the probe.

Warner disagrees with Republicans that a special counsel would slow the Senate’s investigation. “At moments in our nation’s history when our democracy or national security has been threatened — like Watergate — it has been normal practice to simultaneously have both a congressional investigation and a DOJ investigation,” Warner’s spokeswoman Rachel Cohen said.

Special prosecutors’ powers have changed from the years after Watergate, as the New York Times reported. Now, a special counsel can be overruled and even fired by whoever appoints him or her. In this case, that would likely be Rosenstein.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., another member of the Senate committee, said he was “surprised” by the timing of Trump’s announcement and wanted to find out “why now?” But Lankford told Politico that he believed people would be unhappy with the process of choosing a special counsel and that the FBI can be trusted to continue to handle the investigation.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the only Republican in the Senate thus far to call for Congress to form a select committee to investigate Russia, told reporters Wednesday that he believed a special congressional committee would be more effective than a special counsel. “I believe we need a select committee. I believe we need a select committee,” he said repeatedly when asked about a special counsel.

Other Republican senators lined up behind the White House’s spin, needling Democrats for hypocrisy for criticizing the decision to fire Comey.

“The firing of the FBI director shouldn’t surprise anybody because most people thought if Hillary [Clinton] was elected she would have fired him on the first day,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Shelby added that neither side of the aisle had much “confidence” in Comey. “He was on both sides of the fence all along, politically: Democrat one day, Republican the next.”