Last weekend, President Trump fired off a series of angry tweets labeling the ongoing independent investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia as a “Witch Hunt” while shifting the blame onto his former political opponent, Hillary Clinton. Those tweets have reverberated through the Capitol in the days since.
“I thought they were absolutely chilling, and it’s a sign that he’s continuing his war on American law enforcement and our justice system,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the former attorney general of Connecticut, tells Rolling Stone. “It shows the increasing need for protecting [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein and the special prosecutor from political intimidation and interference.”
Blumenthal and other Democrats, especially those with law degrees and prosecutorial experience, agree that it’s imperative to pass a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But the tune has changed on the GOP side of the aisle, where the president’s impassioned tweets now seem to have become white noise.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) is a lead sponsor of the effort to protect Mueller, which recently passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee despite protests by Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader. McConnell has made clear he has no intention of ever letting it see the light of day on the Senate floor.
“It’s really a discussion about future special counsels,” Tillis tells Rolling Stone.
While the realization has set in for many Republicans that the bill isn’t going anywhere, some still want to take it up just to send a warning to Trump.
“I think it will never become law, because the president would never sign it,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) tells Rolling Stone. “I think it would send a good message for the Senate to debate it.”
On the other side of the Capitol, it’s been a different scene altogether. This week, a group of close to 20 far-right conservative House members introduced legislation calling for a new special counsel to be appointed to investigate why the FBI didn’t prosecute Hillary Clinton over her use of a private server while secretary of state. The Republicans also want answers about foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation and whether the Obama administration politicized the FBI by having an informant interview Trump campaign officials who were in talks with Russians during the election – which Trump has now repeatedly dubbed “SPYGATE.”
“It’s the scandal of our time – the scandal, perhaps, of our lifetime,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) told reporters at the press conference unveiling the legislation this week. “We need to get to the bottom of what the previous president knew with regards to this misconduct. And we also need to know why this abuse of power was performed for political purposes, because that can never happen in this country again.”
Some more senior Republicans are trying to throw water on the nascent GOP effort to turn the tables away from Trump and onto the Clintons.
“I’ve gone back and forth on that,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas tells Rolling Stone. “But I think that special counsels are problematic, because they’re not really accountable to anybody and they can kind of go off on a fishing expedition well beyond their instructions. And I just think history has proven that over and over and over, so I no long favor another special counsel.”
While Cornyn and other Republicans are trying to dissuade the far right wing of the party from this latest effort, the president himself is feeling emboldened by his support from backbenchers in the House and has been doubling down on his calls to investigate the very federal law enforcement agencies he’s supposed to impartially oversee from afar.
“It’s just another effort to drop smoke bombs into the [Russian] investigation as it seems to get tighter,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on the C.I.A., tells Rolling Stone. “There seems to be another pattern of every time the investigation takes on a new lead or develops a new track the president acts out in this way.”
Earlier this week, senior intelligence officials agreed to brief two senior House Republicans on the sources and methods employed by the FBI during the pre-Mueller days of the Russia investigation.
By Thursday, those intelligence officials also agreed to brief Democrats, but critics say the damage is already permanently done to the nation’s historically bipartisan oversight of the intelligence community.
“Some of this crowd is willing to throw that all to the wind to try to advance partisan interests and try to derail an ongoing investigation into the president,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chair Mark Warner (D-VA) tells Rolling Stone. “The challenge is when you take these actions, you can’t say, ‘Oops’ afterwards and walk away from the precedent-setting nature of what’s happening right now.”