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After Trump tweets, GOP rallies around Mueller — but not bills to protect him

President Trump railed against special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation on March 18, prompting a swift response from lawmakers. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

The congressional Republican rebukes of President Trump for attacking special counsel Robert S. Mueller III were sharp but selective: As GOP lawmakers defended Mueller against the president’s tweets, there were no signs that the president’s weekend Twitter tirade had pushed any GOP lawmakers to the breaking point of calling for legislative steps to protect Mueller’s probe.

The relative calm of members of the GOP stood in sharp contrast to the alarms being sounded by Democrats, some of whom on Monday began calling for legislation to protect the special counsel to be included in a spending bill Congress must pass by Friday.

“I’m going to advocate that we consider the special counsel measure as part of must-do legislation, including the omnibus,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). But with no Republican buy-in, the chances of forcing such an addition are slim.

“I don’t think there’s any need for that; we’re having enough problems with the omnibus now,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “I’ve got zero concerns that the president or his team is going to fire Mueller.”

“I don’t think the president is going to do anything to Bob Mueller,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said in an interview Monday. “Number one, it would be a real mistake. Number two, it would be looked upon very badly by almost everybody. Number three, it would open up media criticism that he’s never even seen before, and I could go on and on.”

Hatch had privately talked to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly last fall to urge Trump to let the special counsel investigation run its course, according to a person familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation. Kelly assured the senator there was no reason to be concerned, the person said, leaving Hatch confident that Mueller’s job remains safe, even with Trump’s recent attacks.

President Trump has weighed in on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election time and time again. Here's a look at how he can limit the probe, and what Congress is trying to do about it. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Washington Post)

It has been almost eight months since lawmakers introduced a pair of bipartisan bills to prevent Trump — or any president — from being able to order the firing of a special counsel without a reason that can pass muster with a panel of three federal judges. Blumenthal and Graham are each original co-sponsors of one of the measures.

But support for the effort has flagged under the weight of political distractions, constitutional concerns and substantive differences between the two proposals that have kept lawmakers from merging them into one bill.

Most Democrats see the bills as the only guaranteed means lawmakers have of protecting the special counsel’s probe from the president’s potential wrath. But in the past several months, Republicans have tried to separate the bills from their inspiration, arguing that Trump would never take the step of orchestrating Mueller’s firing.

The president’s weekend tweets attacking the special counsel’s probe as a “total WITCH HUNT” — the first to mention Mueller by name — do not appear to have changed that conviction.

Trump rails against Mueller investigation, dismisses McCabe’s notes as “Fake Memos”

“I can tell you firing Mueller is not something that he is considering and not something that he’s talking about,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Monday, noting he had spoken to Trump over the weekend. “The president knows he’s innocent. So I think the frustration is he wants to bring it to a close.”

Other Republicans argued that a bill to protect Mueller was not only unnecessary, it was futile, as Trump would never sign it.

“Obviously legislation requires a presidential signature, and I don’t see the necessity of picking that fight right now,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said of bills to protect Mueller.

Despite the party’s conviction that Trump is not seriously contemplating ordering the termination of Mueller as special counsel, several members of the GOP still leaped to Mueller’s defense after Trump excoriated him on Twitter this weekend.

Graham warned on CNN Sunday morning that if Trump tries to fire Mueller, “that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said on Fox that if there is no evidence of collusion with Russians and Trump is innocent, he should leave Mueller alone and “act like it.” And Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said on CNN that he hoped there would be “pushback . . . to keep the president from going there” and ordering Mueller’s firing.

“This is a fight you have to pick” with the president, Flake added Monday. But when asked whether that meant he backed legislation to protect Mueller from being fired, he balked, noting that “the two pieces of legislation I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that they are constitutional.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has said he will not schedule the bills for a markup until they are merged into a single piece of legislation. He has also said he is not convinced that Congress can restrict the president’s ability to fire an executive appointee without running afoul of the Constitution — a concern that his spokesman Taylor Foy suggested on Sunday has not been resolved.

Negotiations to merge the two measures have been continuing, albeit sporadically, for months and are focused on one chief issue: whether the panel of three federal judges ought to weigh in on an order to fire a special counsel before it can take effect — or after. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said on CNN Monday that he believed the bill’s authors had reached “consensus” between the competing versions — but they have yet to release a compromise piece of legislation. In the meantime, Coons has shied away from backing calls to attach such legislation to a spending bill.

“Given the developments of this weekend, every Republican senator should answer why they’re not on this bill,” Coons said. “That would be the better way to move it ahead.”

But congressional Republican leaders dodged direct questions Sunday about the fate of the bills in light of the president’s tweets.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) never furnished a comment, while House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) spokeswoman AshLee Strong simply noted that “as the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.”

Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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