Russia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement

Russia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement
© Greg Nash

The surprise decision to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the FBI's investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election is throwing ongoing congressional probes into limbo.

Senators are scrambling to figure out what Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to name former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel means for their own investigations.

Lawmakers have been working for months to sort through documents and line up interviews with former Trump officials and have even issued a subpoena against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned earlier this year.

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“I think it pretty well at a minimum limits it, maybe just takes us out of the game,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Judiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting MORE (R-S.C.) said Thursday. "It’s going to be hard for us. … Public access to what happened is going to be very limited now because of a special counsel and I don’t want to get in his way."

Sen. Christopher CoonsChris CoonsOvernight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | Senate Dem offers patent reform bill MORE (D-Del.) added his “concern is that we do not end up in a place where the special counsel doesn’t communicate with Congress for months or years.”

Graham and Coons are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of four congressional committees digging into Russia’s election interference and possible ties to Trump campaign officials. The Senate Intelligence, House Intelligence and House Oversight committees are also conducting investigations.

Senators raised questions about how they might coordinate their investigations with the FBI and Justice Department probes with Rosenstein during a closed-door briefing Thursday.

Mueller is effectively taking over an ongoing FBI investigation into Russia's election meddling and any contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

But his special prosecutor title leaves him largely unaccountable to Congress, raising concerns among lawmakers that he could limit what documents the congressional investigations receive or who can appear before their committees.

“There were a number of members of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees that raised concerns about access to information, and the processes that would be put in place to expeditiously get that information,” Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyMerkley: Trump 'absolutely' tried to intimidate Comey Overnight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Dems urge Sessions to reject AT&T-Time Warner merger MORE (D-Ore.) told reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Leadership in both parties, as well as top lawmakers on the committees running the investigations, quickly threw their support behind continuing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPrice: 'No guarantees' people won't fall through cracks of healthcare bill Senate Republicans reluctant to rush vote on healthcare bill GOP senator defends funding Planned Parenthood MORE (R-Ky.) has repeatedly argued publicly that a special prosecutor wasn’t needed and that he supported the probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he is an ex officio member of as the chamber’s top Republican.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinDem senator: GOP's healthcare approach will 'devastate Medicaid' Sunday shows preview: Senate healthcare debate heats up Dems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity MORE (D-Ill.) noted that McConnell was one of the first members to ask Rosenstein about how to coordinate the investigations during Thursday’s meeting.

Washington has a long history of naming special counsel to dig into White House controversies. Former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonBill Clinton: 'The water is going to keep rising’ whether US stays in Paris or not Bill Clinton issues warning on opioid crisis: ‘It’s going to eat us all alive’ Poll: Former AG Lynch should be investigated MORE’s administration was plagued by yearslong investigations, ultimately leading to his impeachment trial five years later. 

Republicans also wanted special counsel to look into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAre Democrats trying to pin the blame for their own sins on Russia? Trump: Calling Warren Pocahontas ‘an insult to Pocahontas’ GOP vows to use Pelosi against Democrats in 2018 MORE's private email server, even though Congress had its own investigation.

Senators stressed that they’re still in the game in the wake of Rosenstein's decision.

"We still have an extremely important role to play," Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSenate Republicans reluctant to rush vote on healthcare bill GOP senator defends funding Planned Parenthood GOP sen: 'We should not be voting' on healthcare this week MORE (R-Maine) told MSNBC. "Our investigation is really important because it is, it will be in public. His won't. And we need a far broader set of the facts to come out.”

Sens. Richard BurrRichard BurrSenate intel panel to hold hearing on Russian meddling in Europe Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | Overnight Cybersecurity: Obama DHS chief defends Russian hack response | Trump huddles on grid security | Lawmakers warned about cyber threat to election systems MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark WarnerAre Democrats trying to pin the blame for their own sins on Russia? Policymakers forget duty to protect taxpayers from financial failures Donna Brazile: Congress has duty to halt Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (D-Va.), the chairman and vice chairman respectively of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also signaled that their committee's probe would continue to move forward in the immediate wake of Rosenstein's announcement. 

Warner said on Thursday afternoon that he and Burr want to sit down with Mueller as soon as next week to try to “deconflict” the jurisdictional boundaries of their investigations.

“In many ways our purview is broader than what may be some of the Justice Department/FBI investigation," he told reporters, defending the need to continue the congressional investigations.

Mueller was given control of the investigation into any coordination between the campaign and Russia but also any other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” — such as FBI Director James Comey’s dismissal.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also struggled to get Flynn to comply with its investigation. It is unclear what, if anything, lawmakers could do to force him to meet with the committee.

Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenCommerce secretary spoiled Treasury secretary’s secret wedding: report Dems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Senate bill would repeal most ObamaCare taxes, delay Cadillac tax MORE (D-Ore.) said he would “go to the mat” to make sure the subpoena was followed, but Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDem senators urged Obama to take action on Russia before election Senate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Calif.), the former chairwoman of the committee, hedged, telling reporters, “Frankly, he has rights.”

Graham echoed Feinstein, saying Flynn has a “Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.” 

“If I were his lawyer I would probably be making the argument that if I’m under criminal investigation, you cannot force me to compromise myself,” he added. 

Senators also appeared uncertain on Thursday about what the Mueller pick meant for their push for Comey to testify publicly.

Lawmakers were already locked in a turf war over who would get Comey’s first public comments since he was fired. 

"It looks like there's a little competition for jurisdiction, but truthfully both the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee have some say in all of that," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is a member of both committees.

The Judiciary Committee has requested any memos from Comey and any White House records of his conversations with Trump. Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's 12:30 Report GOP senator surprises top Dem with birthday cake MORE (R-Iowa), who oversees the committee, said it would go forward with those requests.

But Graham signaled on Thursday that he wasn’t sure Comey would be able to come speak before Congress, specifying that he hasn’t yet heard from from the former FBI director.

“I don’t know if, one, if he wants to, [but] he has a reason now because there's a special counsel,” Graham told reporters. “It probably shuts us down”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added, “I don’t know the answer to that. I can’t tell you. I understand what Lindsey’s saying. I would like to hear from Comey.”

“We're gonna have to put him on a milk carton,” Graham said. “'Have you seen this man?'"