Legislation that would prevent President Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller has never looked more vital than it did Monday. The day ended as it began — with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein still collecting a paycheck — but not without some soap-opera moments, as rumors of Rosenstein’s imminent ouster spread across Washington and cameras followed his every move on live TV. The theatrics served as an urgent reminder that Mueller’s inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election rests on a fragile foundation that Congress needs to reinforce.
Fortunately, there’s a way to do just that: Legislation protecting the Russia probe cleared a Senate panel this spring with bipartisan support. What it needs now is a vote. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t bring it to the floor — he’s clearly afraid of antagonizing Trump — other GOP senators need to push for it. Perhaps some senators — ahem, Susan Collins — could refuse to vote on the Supreme Court nomination until Mueller protections are enacted.
The problem is structural: Special counsels like Mueller are part of the executive branch, ultimately reporting to the president, which means there’s an obvious tension when they’re called on to investigate possible presidential wrongdoing. Trump can order the attorney general to fire him. If the attorney general resists, as Elliot Richardson did when President Richard Nixon told him to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973, the president can just fire the attorney general, then work his way down the Justice Department’s chain of command until he finds someone willing to obey his order.
In the case of the Mueller probe, it’s Rosenstein who would be the first domino to fall, because last year Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any role overseeing the Russia investigation. It’s that turn of events that thrust the deputy attorney general into the national spotlight, and made the job security of a single bespectacled lawyer a matter of such fervid speculation. After surviving Monday, Rosenstein is expected to meet with Trump at the White House on Thursday; he may yet be fired this week.
Removing Rosenstein to thwart a legal inquiry would be a blatant act of obstruction of justice, and an impeachable offense. That’s a drastic punishment that few congressional Republicans want any part of. But Congress can also give the special counsel more independence, so that the investigation isn’t so easy to short-circuit. In April, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would insulate Mueller from termination. Supporters included Republican Senators Charles Grassley, Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis, and Jeff Flake. Pass the bill, and Rosenstein’s job status need no longer be a matter of national concern.
Even if it passed, the bill has an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives, and Trump would likely veto the legislation. But even if the bill’s prospects are cloudy, it’ll have no future at all if senators won’t even try to advance it. Instead, Republican leaders have said Trump won’t fire Mueller, because thwarting the investigation would look like an admission of guilt. But this president has shown by firing former FBI director James Comey that he’s afraid enough of what the probe might unearth to take drastic steps to obstruct it.
Ultimately, that would harm all Americans, by denying them the truth. Democrats and Republicans alike should hope Mueller is free to conclusively exonerate the president — or not.