How Congress can protect Mueller now

The Observer editorial board

Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort leaves his home in Virginia on Monday.
Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort leaves his home in Virginia on Monday. AP

The noise began last week, with conservatives and President Donald Trump wondering why special prosecutor Robert Mueller wasn’t spending his time on better things than possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The volume was turned up over the weekend, with an astounding Wall Street Journal editorial saying that Mueller was too close to the FBI and should resign, followed by an op-ed saying that Trump should fire the prosecutor if he doesn’t step down.

Now, with the indictments Monday of former high-ranking Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates – and with a campaign advisor pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about a 2016 meeting with a Russian professor – members of Congress need to be even louder today with an unambiguous message:

Donald Trump should not move to fire Robert Mueller. To do so would be the most egregious use of presidential power in history.

Monday’s indictments put to rest the notion that the Russia investigation is fake news. It is not a witch hunt, as the president alleges. It’s not an exercise in excuse-making for Hillary Clinton’s loss last November. Most Americans know this. The most powerful American, Trump, probably knows this, too.

The president, however, has shown a willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to protect himself or lash out at what he believes is wrong. What can members of Congress do to prevent Trump from doing so now with Mueller? They must back up their words with action – specifically, a bill that not only would protect Mueller against removal, but would block other types of interference the president might consider.

North Carolina senator Thom Tillis has already given his colleagues a blueprint of how to begin. In August, Tillis introduced the Special Counsel Integrity Act, which would let Mueller appeal his firing in court. Tillis also told interviewers that he was skeptical about Mueller’s investigation being a “witch hunt,” and his GOP colleagues lauded Mueller’s integrity. That’s the right thing to say. Tillis, along with other Republicans, should say it again this week.

But the Tillis bill, along with a similar measure co-authored by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, doesn’t go quite far enough. A better bill would eliminate an annual funding reauthorization that the president could use to shut off money to Mueller, and it could revive the old independent prosecutor statute that forbid any interference in investigations. That statute was allowed to lapse in 1999 by members of both parties who worried that previous prosecutors had too much authority.

There is no way to know today the ultimate significance of Monday’s indictments, which notably do not include any mention of collusion and high-level Trump campaign officials. These could be the only big charges to come from Mueller’s investigation, or they could be the first move in making an airtight case against the president. Only the special prosecutor and his team know what’s to come, and Congress should make sure they get to see it through.