Republican and Democratic senators are introducing a pair of bills aimed at making it more difficult for President Trump to fire the special counsel investigating him — another sign of growing willingness in Congress to push back against the president.
Sens. Thom Tillis and Chris Coons — both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee — introduced the Special Counsel Integrity Act on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Sens. Lindsey Graham, Cory Booker, Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal introduced a similar bill — the Special Counsel Independence Protection Act — on Thursday as well.
The Tillis-Coons bill would allow for court review of any firing of any special counsel, and is similar to a provision in the independent counsel law that Congress let expire in the 1990s.
The Graham-Booker-Whitehouse-Blumenthal bill would go a step further, requiring the attorney general to go to court seeking approval before removing any special counsel.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel earlier this year to lead the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. As the investigation has continued and expanded, Trump has expressed anger over the broad direction and handling of the investigation, raising questions of whether he would — at some point — attempt to remove Mueller or otherwise push for his removal.
The Tillis-Coons bill is explicitly retroactive to May 17 (the day Mueller was appointed).
"It is critical that special counsels have the independence and resources they need to lead investigations," Tillis said in a statement. Tillis said the bill's aim — to "prevent unmerited removals of special counsels" — "not only helps to ensure their investigatory independence, but also reaffirms our nation’s system of check and balances."
The legislation would allow any fired special counsel to challenge the removal in federal court.
"Ensuring that the special counsel cannot be removed improperly is critical to the integrity of his investigation," Coons said in a statement regarding his support for the legislation.
Under Justice Department regulations, a special counsel can only be removed for good cause. The legislation would make those regulations into law, stating that a special counsel could only be removed for "misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause, including violation of policies of the Department of Justice."
Under the Tillis-Coons legislation, a three-judge panel would review any challenged removal within two weeks of it being challenged, determining whether there was "good cause" for the removal. If the panel finds there was not good cause, under the bill, the special counsel would be reinstated.
The Graham-led bill would require the attorney general to go to court seeking approval for the removal of any special counsel.
As with the current regulations and the Tillis-Coons bill, removal would only be allowed for "misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause, including violation of policies of the Department of Justice." With the Graham-led bill, though, a three-judge panel's court order finding such cause would be required before removal would be allowed. A decision of the three-judge panel could be appealed directly to the Supreme Court.
Additionally, under the Graham-led bill, notice of the court filing would have to be provided to the House and Senate judiciary committees at that time.