Support rises in Congress and public for independent Russia probe

Washington – Even before former FBI Director James Comey’s firing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal was pressing for a special prosecutor to handle any probe of Russian links to the Trump administration. But some say a special prosecutor may not be enough.

Blumenthal on Monday said he’d introduce legislation that would force the appointment of a special prosecutor if Justice Department Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein fails to appoint one on his own.

“I’m going to want an iron-clad commitment,” Blumenthal said.

The decision whether to appoint the special investigator was left to Rosenstein after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe. But Blumenthal wants Rosenstein to delegate the job of selecting the special prosecutor candidate to a career DOJ official, not a political appointee, in an effort to assure impartiality.

U.S. Justice Department

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

Like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.,  Blumenthal said he would block President Donald Trump’s candidate to replace Comey if a special prosecutor were not appointed. But that could only happen if several Republicans join all Democrats in voting against that nomination.

Blumenthal was the sole vote against Rosenstein’s nomination in the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of only six senators who opposed his confirmation in the full Senate. The reason: Rosenstein would not commit to the appointment of a special prosecutor.

Blumenthal’s campaign drew Trump’s ire last week. In derogatory emails, the president called the senator “Richie” and mocked him about his past misstatements about his military career during the Vietnam War.

But Blumenthal’s effort has momentum. Other Democrats and a small but growing number of Republicans have joined the senator’s call for a special prosecutor.

Blumenthal said he is pressing for a special prosecutor because the law that established an independent counsel has expired.

C-SPAN

Sen. Richard Blumenthal during an earlier Senate hearing.

Some years ago the job of investigating high-level executive branch malfeasance was done by an “independent counsel” who, unlike a special prosecutor, was not tied to the Justice Department.

After former President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of the prosecutor leading the Watergate investigation, Congress created a new type of prosecutor who would be shielded from political pressure and interference.

The law that set up  the independent counsel position put it under the supervision of a three-judge federal panel.

The Reagan-era investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal was headed by an independent counsel. Perhaps the most famous was Ken Starr, whose investigation led to the effort to impeach former President Bill Clinton.

Starr’s aggressiveness bolstered the view that an independent prosecutor had too much unchecked power. The statute that established the Office of Independent Counsel expired in 1999 and was not renewed. Instead, Congress passed a law establishing the position of special prosecutor, which reports to the Justice Department, but is supposed to have independence in its day-to-day operations.

Calls for blue-ribbon panels, too

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, is a member of the House Intelligence Committee that is looking into any possible ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign. The Senate Intelligence Committee also is conducting a Russia probe.

But the congressional investigations are suspected of partisanship.

“The faith of the American people in their government will be shaken if we cannot rely on the instruments of justice to function free of political interference,” Himes said.

The public seems to agree.

An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday shows 78 percent of respondents said they would prefer an investigation led by an independent prosecutor or independent commission. Just 15 percent  said they preferred an investigation led by Congress.

After Comey’s firing, a few Republicans have joined Democrats in seeking politically independent ways to conduct the Russia probe.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., said he might back a Democratic bill that would create a special 12-member, bipartisan panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission to interview witnesses and issue  subpoenas to determine if the Russians or anyone else tried to influence the U.S. elections. All members of the Connecticut delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives have sponsored the “Protecting our Democracy Act.”

Blumenthal said he supports the idea of a commission, but that a special prosecutor also is needed because “only a prosecutor can bring charges.”

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is pressing for creation of a special select committee, made up of members of Congress, much like the panel that collected reams of incriminating evidence in the Watergate scandal.

“I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election,” McCain said in a statement. “The president’s decision to remove the FBI director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee.”

Rosenstein will meet with members of the Senate on Thursday to answer questions about circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing. Until now, Rosenstein has not indicated he’d consider appointing a special prosecutor. But he’s facing increasing scrutiny from members of Congress for drafting a three-page memo that the White House initially said was the basis of the FBI director’s firing.

On Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called on House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to insist Rosenstein brief House members.

“In the days since the firing of Director Comey, there has been a distressing disparity of information being made available to the Senate but not to the House,” Pelosi wrote Ryan. The former FBI director appeared before a Senate panel two weeks ago, but was not invited to come to the House for questioning, Pelosi said.

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