On Thursday, the House passed a bill urging the public disclosure of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. It did so nearly unanimously — the vote was 420-0. The four members who didn’t vote for it instead voted “present.”
But almost immediately, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blocked the Senate from even taking it up. The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman demanded that Democrats also vote on appointing a special counsel to look into alleged "Department of Justice misconduct” in the investigations into President Trump and Hillary Clinton. Democrats are refusing.
Here’s why Graham may want to reconsider.
There is surely a moral case for voting for the bill, as the House’s near-unanimous passage suggests, but that’s for people to decide for themselves. There are reasons that Justice Department guidelines don’t require the full release of the Mueller report, including not releasing information obtained via grand jury and not publicizing allegations that don’t lead to actual indictments. Attorney General William Barr has cited these restrictions as constraining his ability to release details of the report, which is what led to the House’s vote.
But politically speaking, there are many reasons Graham should want to vote for this, and now. One is that it’s not binding, so it wouldn’t technically change much of anything. Why not just vote on something that merely expresses a pro-disclosure posture? Almost every House Republican was only so happy to do so on Thursday. They may have been more worried about what it would have looked like to vote against it, but this was about as close to a consensus bill as you can get.
Beyond that, it could help avoid potentially much more difficult votes down the line. Let’s say that we see only limited details of the Mueller report publicly, but there is a suggestion of potential wrongdoing by Trump or someone close to him like his son, Donald Trump Jr. At that point, congressional Republicans would be in a real pickle. Do they not push for the release of the full report, and look like they are trying to cover it up? Or do they vote for disclosure at that point, and make it look like they are truly concerned about what Trump et al. may have done?
The second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), pointed to the perils of non-disclosure after Thursday’s vote. “After taking nearly two years, costing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and providing limited public information about its scope," he said, "I am especially concerned about what would happen if the report was not made available to Congress.”
Voting in favor of disclosure now would put GOP senators on the record on this topic at a time when it’s not a very difficult decision. They could help inoculate themselves from this whole situation by simply saying they would like to see what Mueller found, and then let Barr make his decisions (which may or may not actually be influenced by these votes). That puts the onus on Barr to be the Bad Guy, rather than them. ‘We already voted for disclosure!' they could say.
Graham’s demand for a special counsel to look into alleged Justice Department wrongdoing is clearly a politically motivated one. There is already a U.S. attorney looking into these things, but Graham wants to make the argument that Democrats aren’t curious about potential wrongdoing within the top levels of U.S. law enforcement.
But Graham is also someone who has seen merit in getting out ahead of potentially damaging situations involving Mueller. At one point he was a leading advocate for a bill to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump. (Since becoming Judiciary Committee chairman and having the power to actually move such a bill, Graham has backed off and said there’s no need.)
This would seem an even bigger opportunity to check a box before things get messy. Time will tell whether it was the right call politically to ignore a bill the House passed 420-0.