WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans said Tuesday that they support the work of special counsel Robert Mueller, who in recent days has drawn particular scorn from President Donald Trump, but they indicated they won't take steps to protect him.
"I've received assurances his firing is not even under consideration," said House Speaker Paul Ryan. "The special counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference. Absolutely. I am confident that he'll be able to do that."
Trump blistered Mueller and his investigation on Twitter over the weekend and started in again Monday, questioning the probe's legitimacy with language no recent president has used for a federal inquiry.
"A total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!" Trump wrote.
Mueller is leading a criminal probe into whether Trump's 2016 presidential campaign had ties to Russia and whether there has been obstruction of justice since then.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also expressed confidence in the special counsel on Tuesday, saying he should be allowed to "finish his job," but like many Republicans he did not suggest legislative action was necessary to protect the special counsel should he be fired.
"I think he will have great credibility with the American people when he reaches a conclusion of this investigation," said McConnell, R-Ky. "So I have a lot of confidence in him."
McConnell was silent through the weekend as other Republicans alternately criticized Trump for his series of tweets and expressed faith that he would not move to have Mueller fired.
White House officials continue to say there is no plan to fire Mueller even though Trump believes the investigation is a waste of time.
"Look, the president has been very clear about the fact that there was no collusion between his campaign and any other entity," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. "However, to pretend like going through this absurd process for over a year would not bring frustration seems a little bit ridiculous."
One lawmaker who has spoken directly to Trump in recent days, House Freedom Caucus member Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said the president is largely venting frustration but has no plans to actually take steps to oust the special counsel.
Trump has fumed to confidants that the Mueller probe is "going to choke the life out of" his presidency if allowed to continue indefinitely, according to an outside adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with the president.
Other key Republican lawmakers have told Trump to cut it out.
Frequent Trump critic Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., even raised the prospect of impeachment.
"We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel," Flake tweeted Tuesday evening. "Don't create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing. Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact, through impeachment. No one wants that outcome. Mr. President, please don't go there."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also warned Tuesday that ousting Mueller would "probably" be an impeachable offense.
"I think what the president will have done is stopped an investigation in whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians, what effect the Russians had on the 2016 campaign," Graham said on conservative host Hugh Hewitt's radio show Tuesday morning. "I can't see it being anything other than a corrupt purpose."
Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Monday that firing Mueller would be "the stupidest thing the president could do." Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also have spoken out.
Still, GOP lawmakers said they didn't think it was necessary to pass bipartisan bills introduced last summer to protect Mueller.
Of speculation that Trump would move to fire Mueller, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said: "I don't think that's going to happen so I just think it's not necessary, and obviously legislation requires a presidential signature. I don't see the necessity of picking that fight right now."
Even so, Cornyn said there would be "a number of unintended consequences" if Mueller were to be removed and that lawmakers had communicated that message to Trump "informally and formally."
Trump cannot directly fire Mueller. Any dismissal, for cause, would have to be carried out by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed the counsel and has continued to express support.
Democrats said most Republicans are being willfully blind to the possibility of Mueller's firing, arguing Trump has proved during his presidency that he will make rash decisions opposed by his aides and party leaders.
"People who have thought well of Donald Trump have usually been mistaken," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who has written legislation to protect the special counsel in case of a firing, has been trying to persuade Republicans in dozens of recent conversations to sign onto his bill, with little traction. He argued that GOP senators don't want to contemplate what they would be forced to do should a firing occur.
"If we do not have a coherent plan for how to address an abrupt firing of Bob Mueller, then we are failing to do our job," Coons said. Referring to the recent dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the senator added: "If you think President Trump is going to hesitate to do something dramatic and bold like firing Rod Rosenstein or Jeff Sessions, you're just not watching the show."
NEW TRUMP LAWYER
Trump this week added a new lawyer, Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, to his legal team.
DiGenova has been outspoken in his defense of Trump, talking of a "brazen plot" to exonerate Democrat Hillary Clinton in an email investigation and to "frame" Trump with a "falsely created crime."
The Trump legal team had also reached out to high-profile Washington attorney Ted Olson from the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP about joining the group. But his law partner Theodore Boutrous Jr., a member of the firm's executive and management committees, tweeted Tuesday that Olson would not be joining the legal team.
Olson, 77, who served as solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration and has long been considered a legal superstar, would have brought deeper ties to the Justice Department and more experience on landmark cases than any of Trump's current lawyers.
Inside the West Wing, there have been ongoing talks about Olson.
Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway recommended Olson to the president this week, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
The president discussed the possibility of enlisting Olson with aides Monday and was supportive of the idea, another person said.
The people familiar with the discussions were not authorized to speak publicly.
In an email Tuesday, Olson declined to comment for this article.
Information for this article was contributed by Mary Clare Jalonick, Zeke Miller, Chad Day, Lisa Mascaro, Darlene Superville and Eric Tucker of The Associated Press and by Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig, Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis, Ed O'Keefe and Rosalind S. Helderman of The Washington Post.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s firing would create “a constitutional crisis,” Sen. Jeff Flake (shown), R-Ariz., warned Trump in a tweet, adding, “Mr. President, please don’t go there.”
A Section on 03/21/2018
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