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GOP pushes Trump for new attorney general amid Mueller uproar

POLITICO logo POLITICO 11/16/2018 By Burgess Everett and Eliana Johnson
a man wearing a suit and tie: “If we had some confidence that there is somebody nominated that would be confirmed in a reasonable period of time, to me it seems like it would relieve a lot of the controversy,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. © Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo “If we had some confidence that there is somebody nominated that would be confirmed in a reasonable period of time, to me it seems like it would relieve a lot of the controversy,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

Senate Republicans are urging President Donald Trump to quickly nominate a permanent attorney general, hoping a new top law enforcement officer will blunt bipartisan concern over the future of special counsel Robert Mueller and boost the GOP ahead of tough government funding talks.

Even after Trump’s latest attack on Mueller in a flurry of tweets Thursday, most Republicans argue the president will not fire Mueller or derail his investigation because the political consequences would be too great.

But they said that naming an attorney general nominee as soon as possible — specifically one who would vow to preserve the Russia probe — would go a long way in halting legislative momentum to protect Mueller and Democratic messaging that acting attorney general Matt Whitaker will undermine the investigation.

“If we had some confidence that there is somebody nominated that would be confirmed in a reasonable period of time, to me it seems like it would relieve a lot of the controversy,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who predicted that Whitaker, who was openly critical of the Mueller probe before Trump tapped him for the job, is “not going to be there long.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said Trump’s pick would have to assure lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that Mueller would be able to continue unimpeded.

“It would be helpful to start moving … so we can have that person in place as soon as possible,” Lankford said. “Whoever is going to be there would have to make clear statements about what they intend to do on the special counsel. The sooner the better. Let’s get it resolved.

The White House is working to find a broadly acceptable pick for the job. The president's legal team has reached out to former attorney general Bill Barr to gauge his interest in the position, according to sources familiar with the conversations. Barr, a veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration, didn't say no, but he did tell the president's lawyers he'd prefer they look at other options.

The Trump team has begun that process, and those options include Barr's Kirkland and Ellis partner Mark Filip, who served as deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush administration. The Senate unanimously confirmed him to that post.

The challenge with more traditional choices like Barr and Filip, with whom the president does not have a personal relationship, will be persuading Trump that he can trust them, the president's allies say. They are aware they will have to call on people like the Federalist Society‘s Leonard Leo to vouch for their personal loyalty and sterling credentials.

Trump insisted this week that people are clamoring for the post, despite the difficult balancing act it will take between aiding Trump and overseeing the Mueller investigation.

"I have been called by so many people wanting that job. We have some great people. In the meantime, I think Matt’s going to do a fantastic job,” Trump told the Daily Caller on Wednesday.

No matter whom Trump picks, the attorney general nominee is unlikely to be confirmed until next year. But the nominee could quickly pledge to protect Mueller if confirmed, and keep most Senate Republicans in line and away from pushing the special counsel protection bill on the Senate floor.

“Whether it happens now or next year in the Senate, we’re pretty well positioned to move forward. We’ll have the votes we think, assuming it’s somebody who’s well qualified and I expect them to be,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who will take over as majority whip next year.

“Sooner rather than later,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally. “If the investigation is still ongoing, yeah, they need to protect him.”

However, any pledge to protect Mueller from a nominee or a confirmed attorney general would set Trump off and be viewed as a betrayal akin to Jeff Sessions' recusal.

What is more likely, Trump allies say, is silence. That's what Whitaker has given, avoiding a statement that would enrage the president and an attack on Mueller that would alienate Republicans already suspicious of him. The next attorney general is likely to operate the same way, leaving both the president and senators unsatisfied.

Absent a pledge from Sessions’ successor to lay off Mueller, any nominee would be enormously difficult to confirm and would quickly turn off the prospect of Democratic support.

“If I had someone coming in that I thought would pull the plug on Mueller, it would be a problem,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a moderate Democrat who opposed Sessions.

Both he and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that legislation to shield the special counsel from a Trump firing must be passed regardless, given the uncertainty in the Justice Department’s leadership.

[Whitaker] “may resign tomorrow and we may get a new attorney general,” Durbin said. “Better for us to have the Mueller protection in place regardless of who the attorney general is."

For the next month a half, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) must deal with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and his vow to vote against judicial nominees absent an opportunity to vote on the special counsel bill. But Flake is alone in his stand at the moment among Republicans, and he could remain there if Trump moves on an attorney general.

Both Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said they won’t join Flake, but believe he should get a vote on the special counsel bill. Corker, however, said it “could” help if Trump acts quickly on an attorney general nominee and suggested that Flake may end up getting a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” vote.

Collins and Flake, however, said they want a binding vote to protect Mueller, despite concerns of other GOP senators. The Senate GOP discussed the bill’s potential constitutional issues at a private lunch on Thursday, Corker said.

Earlier Thursday, Trump lashed out at Mueller on Twitter, calling the investigation a “total mess” and accusing the special counsel of protecting Democrats.

The legislation should come up in light of Trump’s “firing of Jeff Sessions, his installation of Matt Whitaker, and also his tweet this morning, all of which are disturbing to me,” Collins said. “I really wish the president had followed the advice of many of us in the very beginning and never commented on this investigation.”

Meanwhile, top Democrats and Flake are floating demands that any bill passed to prevent a government shutdown next month include language shielding Mueller, something Republicans have resisted.

“The final goal is to put it as part of the spending bill and get it signed into law but the first goal has to be having a vote on the floor. If there’s support for it then there will be more pressure,” Flake said in an interview.

The proposal still has scant support among Republicans, however, which means that a new attorney general is the Senate’s best bet to get some assurances on Mueller. And while the overwhelming majority of senators interviewed for this story want it done quickly, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) seemed fine with a more languid pace.

“I want to see the president take his time and find somebody that he’s comfortable with and will serve the American people well,” said the Louisianan. "However long that takes is however long it takes.”

Elana Schor contributed to this report.

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