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Republicans question Trump’s firing of FBI director

Erica Werner
Associated Press

Washington — More than a dozen Republican senators voiced concerns Wednesday over President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, in a series of statements suggesting the GOP was not yet prepared to close ranks behind its president. But most Republicans also refused to embrace Democratic calls for a special counsel and it was not clear their hand-wringing would result in any action.

“The timing of this and the reasoning for it doesn’t make sense to me,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, which like the FBI is investigating Russian ties to the Trump campaign and meddling in the 2016 election. Burr said Comey’s firing could complicate his investigation.

“I think we need to find out what’s happened and why,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

“It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said soon after news of Comey’s firing surfaced.

The unease expressed by key committee chairs and rank-and-file lawmakers alike came even as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., echoed White House talking points on the issue and tried to shut down talk of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia issues.

Speaking on the Senate floor, McConnell noted that Democrats themselves had repeatedly criticized Comey over his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email issues. And he said that with the FBI and Senate intelligence committee already investigating Russian interference, nothing further was needed.

“Today we will no doubt hear calls for a new investigation which could only serve to impede the current work being done,” McConnell said.

Options for an independent probe remain limited, and the only current avenue for such an appointment is in the hands of the Justice Department.

Questions of political interference have dogged the investigation before. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from anything related to the Russia investigation. On Tuesday, both he and the official currently overseeing the probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, recommended that Trump fire Comey.

“If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday.

There is little Congress can do immediately other than apply political pressure to try to force the Trump administration’s Justice Department to name a special counsel. Other alternatives for an independent investigation require congressional approval and, while Democrats are threatening to introduce legislation, a shot at success appears challenging.

Even if a special counsel is appointed, it would be difficult to dispel a perception of impropriety. The person ultimately would answer to the Justice Department and any decisions can be overruled. Plus, in most cases, the special counsel works in secret, with no assurance that the probe’s findings will be made public.

Republican Sen. James Lankford said Congress and the nation deserve to know why Comey was dismissed.

“I understand the desire to be able to have a special prosecutor,” said Lankford, of Oklahoma. “Problem is, as we all know, the special prosecutor is selected by the attorney general’s office.”

Democrats also have called for a 9/11-type independent commission and for a select congressional committee to investigate, due to concerns that Republican-led panels may not be motivated to aggressively probe the leader of their party and his campaign. Republicans contend existing bipartisan investigations underway in Congress are sufficient.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Democrats have been drawing parallels between Comey’s firing and President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the independent special prosecutor overseeing the Watergate investigation in 1973. That firing prompted congressional legislation in the late 1970s that authorized the appointment of independent prosecutors by a panel of three judges from the Washington, D.C. U.S. Court of Appeals. The special prosecutor established in that law had more independence than the Justice Department’s current special counsel position. But Congress let the law expire in 1999.

The last high-profile special counsel to be named was in 2003 when the Bush Justice Department turned to Patrick Fitzgerald, then the top federal prosecutor in Chicago, to investigate who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer. That appointment was made by Comey, who at the time was deputy attorney general. Comey took the extra step of giving Fitzgerald complete discretion to conduct the investigation, bolstering the special counsel’s independence.