Reports President Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June, only backing off when his White House counsel threatened to quit has New Jersey’s U.S. Senator warning that any such action could cause a constitutional crisis. Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham last August that would require a three-judge panel to approve any Justice Department request to fire Mueller or any future special counsel. Sen. Booker joins Michael Hill.
Hill: Sen. Booker, thank you for joining us. What’s happened to your bill, the Special Counsel Independence Protection Act since last August?
Booker: Well, I’ll tell you it’s gotten some bipartisan support and even got a hearing from Republican Chuck Grassley. But the challenge now is we thought before that this was a sense of pragmatic imperative. We knew we needed to put some checks and balances on presidential power to remove a special counsel, especially when that counsel is working on an investigation of the president.We had a pragmatic imperative; we now have a moral urgency because Donald Trump, we have seen now was, looking to fire this special counsel and it really just took a heroic act if you look at it in the context of history of somebody threatening their job, threatening to resign. So, we know that this president consistently, when it comes to this Russia investigation, has tried to undermine it in every way. Besides calling it the “greatest witch hunt in American history,” which is appalling, especially given the things like the Scottsboro Boys or Emmett Till or some of the other ugly chapters and investigations in this country, but he has actually taken action, he took action against [FBI Director James] Comey. He told Lester Holt that this was someone, he fired Comey because of this investigation. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, he said he wanted to fire him. There were rumors about him firing him because he had recused himself appropriately from this investigation and now here we have the special counsel himself. So, there is an urgency to do something about it. I am grateful to have a partner in Lindsey Graham and I’m hoping that now we have some more momentum for this bill because it’s urgent in order to save the republic, or at least prevent a constitutional crisis, more appropriately.
Hill: Doesn’t under Article II of the Constitution the president have the power to remove the special counsel?
Booker: Again, the president right now has the power to order the removal of a special counsel for cause. The problem is that for cause, who is the arbiter of what is cause? If it’s Donald Trump’s world, the cause could just be investigating him. We don’t want presidents to have that kind of power. There should be a rational check and balance on that power. Our bill says the judiciary branch should step in and do an evaluation because maybe there is a prosecutor who has done things wrong and should be removed. But, we want to make sure there’s some check on presidential power in the way that our framers believed our government should be, a series of checks and balances so that we don’t have an authoritarian leader, so that we don’t have a monarchy of sorts, or some strong person, strong man just wants to push their will and is not above the law and above accountability.
Hill: What does this New York Times report say or prove, if anything, about the president allegedly obstructing justice in this case?
Booker: Well, I think that this is something that we should give latitude to the special counsel to investigate. Remember, this investigation started out on the very serious issue of Russian involvement and undermining the most sacrosanct element of a democracy, which is our election. And then there became credible evidence of members of Donald Trump’s team, including his son, potentially colluding with the Russians as we saw from Donald Trump Jr.’s own email. Hey, you got a Russian official who reaches out, a Russian agent, and he says, oh this is wonderful and goes to meet with them. Then it evolved even from there to the obstruction of justice and some of the actions that the president himself has taken, an investigation of those actions, like the firing of Comey. This is a very serious investigation. It should not be a partisan one. It should be an objective figure like special counsel Mueller following the facts where they lead and the president should allow that to happen. If he’s not guilty, he has nothing to worry about and this is the kind of rhetoric that Donald Trump himself has said when he was citizen Trump about other investigations. If you’re not guilty, you have nothing to worry about and he should cooperate with this investigation.
Hill: Are you optimistic that his failure to fire Mueller in this instance means that he will not attempt it again?
Booker: No, I’m not optimistic. Again, this is a president who has smashed our Democratic norm, who has shown inclinations to be an authoritarian leader. In fact, his rhetoric, he has even celebrated with authoritarian leaders throughout the country from Putin to Erdogan in Turkey to Duterte. This is somebody, I have a lot of concerns, but for the constraints of the law, that this is a man that would be doing much more to suppress this democracy and assert authoritarian rule. And so we need to have checks and balances. This bill is a moderate step in providing one of those checks and balances on an ongoing investigation into very serious allegations.
Hill: Now, plenty of Republicans, as you know, senator, are saying that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should have fired Mueller last year. What kind of support do you have for this bill?
Booker: Well, I’ve got Lindsey Graham, one of the principal Republicans you’re hearing about these days, as a partner in this bill who does not think that Donald Trump should be allowed to summarily order the firing of the special counsel. I’ve got a chairman of a Judiciary Committee who thought enough of the bill to have a hearing on the bill. There’s at least one other Republican who’s partnered on a similar bill. So, before we found out about this revelation there was bipartisan support for this bill. I’m hoping that there will be more when we get back into session next week, more Republicans willing to step forward and work with me on it.
Hill: Has this become politicized, a very political issue, Democrats on one side, Republicans to a certain extent, on the other side?
Booker: Well, this bill itself has not been politicized. The idea of checks and balances, pragmatic and sobered approach, that hasn’t been politicized and this is why New Jerseyans sent me down to Washington: to find things to work with people across the aisle that are pragmatic and not partisan, to help people, to help our country and don’t hurt it. So, I’m not worried about this legislation. It’s like many other pieces of legislation, very much in the realm of creating bridges to work together in a bipartisan manner on a real issue. What I am worried about, and what has been politicized, is the Mueller investigation in and of itself. This is somebody that the president has now attacked. You see right-wing, 24-hour news shows continuing to attack, some of my House Republican colleagues are trying to do everything they can to undermine the legitimacy of this investigation and that’s very dangerous. That’s why we need to make sure we have protections of the special counsel’s work. And we all, Democrats and Republicans, step back and allow this work to go, allow the special prosecutor to follow the facts before we draw any summary conclusions.
Hill: Sen. Cory Booker, from Washington. Thank you, senator.
Booker: Thank you very much, Michael.