A Senate panel passed legislation Thursday to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Donald Trump without cause.
Four Republicans joined with all 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass the legislation. Seven Republicans voted against the measure.
The bill stands little chance of becoming law, but its passage from the Republican-led committee sent a strong signal to Trump. Mueller is investigating possible Russian meddling and collusion with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sponsored the legislation with Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
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"The rule of America stood the test of time in this regard: no one is above it," Graham told the committee. "It's not about Mr. Mueller, not about Trump. It’s about the rule of law."
Tillis said the bill was not about Mueller, but about protecting future special counsels.
"I didn't go about this bill because of Mueller," Tillis said. "I'm trying to create law that has enduring value."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said it was silly to pretend that the legislation was not about Mueller.
In addition to Graham and Tillis, Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Flake of Arizona voted for the bill.
The bill would allow a fired special counsel to request a judicial review. If the judicial panel found that the firing was not done for just cause, the special counsel would be reinstated. An amendment from Grassley added additional reporting requirements from the Justice Department to Congress about special counsels.
Tillis and Graham have said they do not believe that Trump will fire Mueller, despite reports that the president has considered firing the special counsel on several occasions. Trump has denied that he wants to fire Mueller, but has called the investigation a "witch hunt" many times.
While talking about the FBI's past investigation of Hillary Clinton during an interview with Fox News' "Fox and Friends" on Thursday morning, Trump said he is not involved with his Justice Department but may change his mind at some point.
"Our Justice Department — which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won't — our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia," Trump said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the bill would not get a vote on the Senate floor. Grassley, the committee's chairman, said he would work to get a floor vote on the legislation.
"It's going to be a tough row to hoe, but a farmer has to hoe a lot of tough rows," he said.
Many of the committee's Republicans argued that the legislation would be unconstitutional, claiming that it would infringe on the executive branch's constitutional powers.
Nearly every Republican on the panel said they did not think Trump should take steps to fire Mueller. Trump cannot directly fire Mueller, who was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation. Rosenstein — or his replacement if he were removed — has the power to fire Mueller.
"The investigation should be allowed to run its course. I think that’s in the best interests of the president and the country," said Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "In seeking to protect Mueller, it’s important that we not overstep our constitutional authority."
Removing Mueller or Rosenstein with the purpose of removing Mueller "would blow up in his face. It would be the worst decision of his presidency," Graham said.
A newly formed Republican group aired ads in North Carolina, South Carolina, Iowa and Kentucky this week encouraging Republicans to support the legislation. Republicans For the Rule of Law called the committee's vote "an important step toward protecting the probity of Robert Mueller's investigation. To uphold the rule of law, it is crucial the special counsel continue his work free from political interference."