Consider how extraordinary this is: Before it recessed until after Labor Day, the Republican U.S. Senate worried that the Republican president might take steps to fire the special counsel who is investigating him. So the Senate left itself in pro forma session, lest the president make a recess appointment of a new attorney general.
It sure appears that the Senate doesn’t trust President Donald Trump. He keeps giving them reasons not to.
Furthermore, as soon as the Senate comes back to work, it will get to work on a pair of bipartisan bills that would block the president from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller without the approval of a panel of federal judges. The president would have to sign such a bill, limiting his own powers to stop what he repeatedly has called a “witch hunt.” If he vetoed it, he’d be inviting an override attempt and boosting calls for his impeachment.
It almost takes a constitutional scholar to understand the ramifications of all of this. And constitutional scholars don’t fully agree on whether, and how, a president can sack someone who has been legally appointed to investigate him.
Nor is it clear that the Republicans who control Congress would muster the political will to take on the president even if he did set off a constitutional crisis by firing Mueller. Some GOP lawmakers have warned Trump against it, but most remain silent, their fingers testing the wind.
Meanwhile, Mueller has impaneled a grand jury and staffed up with white-collar crime experts, suggesting he’s taking his inquiry beyond the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in meddling with the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump has warned Mueller not to dig into his family’s finances, but the Russia trail could well lead Mueller there.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has joined forces with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., on one bill submitting any decision to fire a special prosecutor to a three-judge panel. It could be consolidated with a similar bill co-sponsored by Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del. Such legislation would almost certainly be challenged in court as an incursion into executive authority.
The Constitution didn’t envision this. The framers imagined George Washington as president, not Donald Trump. The special prosecutor laws in effect at the time of investigations into Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton have been changed. The current law speaks to a “special counsel” appointed by the attorney general.
Trump has expressed anger at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who did the right thing by recusing himself from the case. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has said the committee would not hold confirmation hearings on any successor to Sessions even if Trump fired him.
Any one of these developments would be remarkable. Together they are extraordinary. And to borrow one of Trump’s favorite words, sad.
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