President Trump just cut off the head of Washington's most apolitical investigation of his presidential campaign associates' connections with Russia. To make up for it, Democrats think Congress should appoint a special investigator unbeholden to them or the Trump administration.
Republicans control the majority in both chambers of Congress, so the power to set up an outside investigation is in their hands. A growing number of Senate and House Republicans don't like that Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, but only one GOP senator — Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — has said he'd support an independent inquiry. And he has held that position for months.
Several moderate House Republicans want a special investigation, but almost all of them already thought there should be one.
No one in Washington's mind has been changed by Comey's firing, it seems. People who were calling for a special investigator before are still calling for one now. People who weren't still aren't.
“We have a bipartisan commitment to get to the bottom of this Russian investigation,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the Senate's No. 2, said on Fox News Channel. “Nothing will change by virtue of Director Comey's termination.”
Perhaps the most damning reaction to Comey's ouster comes from the senator leading one of those investigations that GOP Senate leaders are championing. But even this person hasn't gone so far as to join Team Democrats/McCain to call for a special investigation.
Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) said he's “troubled” by the firing of Comey, who was helping the Senate committee get necessary documents and people to conduct its own investigation. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Burr warned that the firing would “be harmful” to the committee and probably would delay its efforts to complete its inquiry. But losing Comey isn't a fatal blow to his investigation, he said.
“I’ve intended from the beginning, regardless of the hurdles that have been thrown, to finish this investigation,” Burr said.
Minds can change, of course. Polls taken around Trump's 100th day in office show that the public is hungry for an independent inquiry regarding Russia. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans think Trump's campaign intentionally helped Russia meddle in the U.S. presidential election, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. And Americans don't really trust Congress to conduct an investigation impartially. (Caveat: Almost all this changes when you break it down along partisan lines.)
Count almost every Democrat in Congress as a skeptic of Congress's ability to do its job. After Trump fired Comey, Democrats were practically screaming that now, more than ever, there needs to be an independent investigation to keep a check on a Trump administration run amok.
Firing Comey has the foul stench of an attempt to stop an ongoing investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.— Senator Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) May 9, 2017
“I hope the majority leader agrees with me that we need to get to the bottom of this,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday, the entire Senate Democratic caucus seated in their desks behind him nodding in agreement.
“Hope” is pretty much all Democrats can do right now. Democrats took away the minority party's ability to filibuster presidential appointments in 2013, so now Trump's nominee for FBI director will need just a majority vote in the Senate. Republicans have a slim 52-vote majority.
“Basically all they can do is take their case to the public and hope that has an effect on congressional Republicans,” said Josh Chafetz, a Cornell Law professor and author of an upcoming book about the reach of Congress's powers.
Democrats' only other option is to try to grind the Senate to a halt on everything else, to basically frustrate McConnell and Republicans into giving in. Already, Senate Democrats have reached for a little-used tool to limit Senate committee hearings to two hours, which isn't enough time for the Senate to consider many of the top-level appointments missing from Trump's government right now. And Democrats can still filibuster legislation.
But their leverage on both those fronts is limited, said Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution: “It’s not clear what work is pending that Senate Republicans really want to move on to that Democrats could obstruct.”
Republicans can get pieces of health-care reform and tax reform done without Democrats, and they were already planning to do that.
What we're left with is what we started with before Comey got fired: a Senate hopelessly divided about how to move forward on a key issue, and a slight edge to Republicans on what to do next because they're the ones in power.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.