WASHINGTON — Republicans on Capitol Hill mostly steered clear of lecturing the president Monday after he attacked special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and celebrated the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe over the weekend.
Instead, they insisted that President Donald Trump, no matter how much he rants, would not take the dramatic step of ordering Mueller to be fired.
Democrats are calling for legislation to protect the investigation, either as a standalone bill or as part of the must-pass government spending bill that is expected to come before the Congress by the end of the week.
But Republicans, while they don’t think that Mueller should be fired, have backed off earlier calls to legislate limits to the president’s ability to oust the special counsel.
"I have received assurances that his firing isn’t even under consideration," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday.
Last summer, two bipartisan pieces of legislation were introduced to protect Mueller as weary Republicans worried whether an unpredictable president would order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller.
But after growing accustomed to the presidents’ tweetstorms and as Trump has proven to be an effective politician for the most devout GOP base, Republican co-sponsors of the bills had no plans on Monday to push for a vote on their own legislation — even as tensions over the probe reach fever pitch, including Trump’s all-out offensive on social media against the Mueller probe.
"If we don’t fight this, we might as well not be here."
Republicans insist that legislation isn’t necessary — they say they are confident Trump won't ax Mueller.
"He is not actually considering firing Mueller," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. "I talked to him. So that’s not even something he is considering."
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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., added, "I don’t think anybody in our conference believes that Mueller is going to be fired."
Graham last August introduced legislation with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., that would trigger a judicial panel if Mueller were fired. Two months ago Graham said on ABC News' "This Week" that he’d be "glad to pass it tomorrow.”
But Graham said on Monday that he didn’t think legislation was necessary. When NBC News asked him why he introduced the legislation if he didn’t want to bring it up for a vote, Graham responded, “Just to let people know where I stand."
When asked why he's so sure Trump wouldn't fire Mueller, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said bluntly, "Well, because I think it would be the stupidest thing that anybody could do."
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is the co-author of another relevant bill with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., that would allow the special counsel to challenge Mueller's removal. Tillis said the bill isn’t necessary this week. He said the bill, at some point, would be good for all presidents moving forward.
“Independent of this particular matter, I actually think it’s a good governance policy going forward for all future presidents,” Tillis said.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber's second-ranking Republican, said legislation wouldn’t work. He also insinuated that it would be a futile fight against the leader of their party.
“So I think it’s not necessary and obviously legislation requires a presidential signature and I don’t see the necessity in picking that fight,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., strongly disagreed with Cornyn, saying that this episode is the appropriate time to wage a fight.
“If we don’t fight this, we might as well not be here,” Flake said. “This is a serious one. This is a fight that you have to pick, you can’t avoid. And the best thing would be is pre-emptively convince the president ‘don’t go there.’”
Some Republicans say the legislation might not be constitutional and wouldn’t withstand court cases, but Republicans appeared to try to be speaking to the president through the media instead of threatening him with legislative oversight.
Most Democrats, meanwhile, are supportive of trying to limit any potential effort by the president to derail the probe.
“I’m urging my colleagues to take this seriously because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Coons said.
Coons acknowledged, however, that legislation might not feasible without Republicans on board.
Instead, he said it’s going to be important to inform the president of "what the consequences would be and how seriously we would take that."
House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said the investigation should be protected in the must-pass spending bill, known as the omnibus, that’s in the final stages of being crafted and must be passed before the end of the week if the government is to stay open.
“I don’t believe Republicans will do what’s necessary to prevent Mueller from being fired, and if he is fired, hold the president accountable," Swalwell said. "A year ago I would have believed otherwise. But, you know, actions speak louder than words."
But multiple sources said the spending bill won't include any legislation protecting Mueller.
CORRECTION (March 20, 10:20 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a Republican senator from Utah. He is Orrin Hatch, not Orin.