Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein thought he was fired Monday. As it turns out: Not yet. It could happen Thursday, when he and president Donald Trump meet at the White House. It could be soon after the midterm elections, if reports are true about the president cleaning house at the Justice Department. But the deputy attorney general is, by all appearances, a lame duck. Republicans need to be ready now for what may follow when his pink slip comes.
Rosenstein is the top Justice Department official overseeing the Robert Mueller investigation, and his potential departure prompts some obvious questions about what the president might do next with the special counsel. After all, Trump has repeatedly scorned the special counsel and once tried to orchestrate his firing before backing down. That’s why, last August, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina co-sponsored legislation that would make firing a special counsel subject to review by a three-judge panel. Tillis, in interviews then, did not shy away from indicating that his bill was directed at President Donald Trump.
Tillis has since wavered. By January of this year, his office said that while he still supported that bill, the matter was no longer urgent because the president said he didn’t plan to fire Mueller. A few months later, however, the senator’s concern had apparently resurfaced. Tillis, along with fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, introduced the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which would protect Mueller from an increasingly frustrated Trump.
“This bill becoming law would remove that narrative from the conversation,” Tillis said then.
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That narrative is back. Now, more than ever, Americans need Tillis, Graham and other senators to ensure that Mueller and his investigation are protected.
Why hasn’t that already happened? In April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ruled out the possibility of the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, or any other legislation protecting the special counsel, from getting to the Senate floor. “There’s no indication that Mueller’s going to be fired,” McConnell told Fox’s Neil Cavuto.
But in the months since, Trump and his supporters have grown increasingly hostile to Mueller, the FBI and the Justice Department. That hostility included the especially disquieting release of a memo that House Republicans wrongly said showed bias in the origin of Mueller’s investigation. Senators, including Tillis, have meekly and quietly watched this denigration of Mueller and the nation’s law enforcement agency. Now Mueller’s fiercest protector may leave, and the nation might be one step closer to a potential constitutional crisis.
At a minimum, Republican senators should declare that they will not confirm any candidate Trump nominates to replace Rosenstein unless that person vows to let Mueller complete his investigation. But even that requires trust of both the nominee and Trump, and we hope the Senate has learned by now not to take this impulsive president at his word. It’s time for Tillis and Graham to revive their bill and renew their call for it to heard on the Senate floor.