President Donald Trump’s options are limited for ending the Russia probe he so wants to see over.
Firing special counsel Robert Mueller? That might open up the president to an obstruction of justice charge.
Defunding the Russia investigation? Influential Republicans are warning the White House to avoid such a direct attack.
Setting up a dueling probe to dig into Democratic scandals? That might distract attention, but it won’t stop Mueller’s wide-ranging probe, which took its first major public step on Monday with criminal charges against three former Trump campaign aides.
“The legal process is working. Just let it work,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Tuesday. “Let Mueller do his job. If he gets off in a ditch and he does something he shouldn’t be doing, then we’ll all comment on it when that happens.”
Despite Trump’s desire to cut the Russia investigations short — and pressure from some allies to do so — the president and his advisers are quickly coming to the realization there isn’t much he can do to derail it. And on Tuesday, several of the president’s top aides did their best to signal that Trump would be staying out of Mueller’s way.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave reporters a flat “no” during her daily briefing when asked whether the president would take aim at Mueller’s budget, as former White House strategist Steve Bannon has suggested.
Trump earlier this year fumed over the Mueller appointment and, citing concerns over potential conflicts of interest for both the special counsel and the attorneys he hired, the president even flirted with the idea of firing him.
But White House attorney Ty Cobb, personal attorneys John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, and White House chief of staff John Kelly have since coached the president to pull back from making explicit, direct attacks against Mueller.
“There’s been no White House involvement in any activity to take any actions at all adverse to the special counsel,” Cobb said in an interview Tuesday.
“I don’t support any kind of retaliatory action,” Sekulow said. “That’s not the position we’re advocating. We’re cooperating with the special counsel.”
Now back at his perch running Breitbart, Bannon, according to a person familiar with his thinking, has complained to Trump about that cooperative approach.
Describing the White House as being caught by surprise by Monday’s indictments, Bannon has suggested it may be time to replace Cobb and Dowd or add another layer of lawyers on top of them.
Cobb dismissed those suggestions as “just silly talk.”
“The die has been set,” he said. “I think our approach has clearly been of assistance and moving us along quickly to free the country from this investigation as expeditiously as possible.”
Bannon isn’t backing down. His next move, according to the person familiar with his thinking, is to try to build support for a proposal from Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) that would end funding for Mueller’s office within six months of the bill being signed into law.
The DeSantis measure was set to be offered as an amendment this summer during debate on the House budget resolution, but it puttered out on a procedural technicality. Bannon wants to give it new life — and nudge House GOP leaders to get behind it — by making it a prime topic of discussion on conservative airwaves, including with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
For now, Mueller’s spending appears to be safe. His funds are drawn from a permanent Treasury Department account that isn’t subject to the annual appropriations process. It’s also controlled through an internal Justice Department audit, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has final authority to approve the special counsel’s spending plans.
On Capitol Hill, key Republican lawmakers said they trust Mueller — a former George W. Bush-appointed FBI director — to run a budget-savvy operation.
“I’m not concerned about it,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of both Senate leadership and the powerful Appropriations Committee, told reporters when asked about the Bannon-led calls to defund Mueller. “I’m also not for it.”
Some conservatives, meantime, are urging Trump to consider another option that wouldn’t strike directly at the Mueller investigation — but might downplay the drumbeat of Russia news enough that the White House could return its focus to policy priorities.
The idea: Setting up a competing special counsel probe that would examine an Obama-era deal that allowed a Russian-owned company to assume control of a slice of U.S. uranium extraction capacity.
Longtime GOP operative and Trump confidant Roger Stone told the Daily Caller on Monday that the president’s “only chance for survival” was to get the Justice Department to investigate the uranium deal, which several congressional committees are already probing. They are scrutinizing Democrat Hillary Clinton’s involvement because the State Department signed off on the uranium deal when she was secretary, although there is no evidence she was personally involved.
Conservative attorney Larry Klayman has been circulating a petition promoting himself to be appointed as that special counsel.
While many Republicans in Congress say they back Mueller, they are open to the special counsel having some company. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) posted on Twitter last week that “whoever in DOJ is capable” of appointing a special counsel on the uranium deal should do it.
Across the Capitol, Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have been making their own pitch since July, when they wrote to top DOJ officials urging them to get a special counsel on the clock to examine everything from the FBI’s handling of last year’s probe into Clinton’s personal email server, which she used while she was secretary of state, to several actions related to former Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Multiple special counsels working at the same time isn’t out of the norm. In fact, seven different special counsel investigations — operating under a law that has since lapsed — at various points examined President Bill Clinton’s administration, including the probe into his Whitewater land deals that morphed multiple times before ending in impeachment proceedings tied to his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
President Ronald Reagan during his two terms dealt with eight different independent counsel investigations, including the Iran-Contra affair that examined the actions of then-Lt. Col. Oliver North and other senior administration officials who were accused of selling arms to Iran and diverting profits to right-wing rebel Contras in Nicaragua.
The Justice Department, which has the final say in determining whether it needs to convene another special counsel, declined to comment on the calls for a probe into the uranium deal or other Obama-era moves.
Even if DOJ did open more special counsel probes, Democrats said they wouldn’t deflect from the work Mueller has already started.
“This idea they’re going to be able to throw a bunch of mud against the wall and hope that someone doesn’t notice that someone was just indicted that was the chairman of the Trump campaign I don’t think makes sense,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.
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