By Ed O’Keefe
WASHINGTON – President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey revived calls by Democratic lawmakers for an independent investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. elections – and could compel Democrats to take bolder steps that would paralyze Congress.
“We are in a full-fledged constitutional crisis,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted Tuesday after the White House announced Comey’s dismissal.
“This is Nixonian,” added Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa.
Aides described Democratic senators as “shaken and alarmed” by the surprise announcement and the news of Comey’s ouster sparked several conversations among Democratic senators about how they should respond.
All Democratic senators were asked by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to be in the Senate chamber when the legislative day formally begins at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The rare early morning appearance by the entire Democratic caucus is a symbolic attempt to sit, watch and listen as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., makes his traditional morning speech. The hope, Democratic aides said, is that McConnell will weigh in on Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
In a written statement Tuesday evening, McConnell said nothing about Comey – only that Trump’s new nominee for FBI director would receive “a full, fair, and timely confirmation process.”
If McConnell says nothing new about Comey, Schumer is expected to use his morning floor speech to call out Republicans for supporting Trump’s controversial move.
Schumer also plans to convene a caucus meeting Wednesday morning so that Democrats can discuss a more formal response, aides said. No decision on how to proceed had been made on Tuesday night, said the aides, who were not authorized to speak publicly about ongoing deliberations.
Under one scenario, the boldest, most extreme step Democrats could take is to drag the Senate to a halt. They could refuse to allow consideration of any legislation or nominees awaiting confirmation votes until Trump agrees to appoint a special prosecutor.
With dozens of Trump administration nominees awaiting confirmation hearings or up-or-down votes on the Senate floor, such a move would likely hamper executive branch agencies currently lacking political leadership and draw the ire of Republicans.
But pressure to block Senate business began percolating late Tuesday.
“Democrats and Republicans who still have dignity should grind government to a halt until a special prosecutor is named,” tweeted Jon Favreau, a speechwriter for former president Barack Obama who now co-hosts a podcast popular with progressives.
Since Trump’s victory last year, Democrats have been calling for an independent, nonpartisan entity to investigate Russia’s meddling in the presidential election. Lawmakers in both parties want to convene a special congressional bipartisan, bicameral commission or a blue-ribbon panel of experts. But most Democrats are clamoring for a special independent prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department.
“The president’s sudden and brazen firing of the FBI director raises the ghosts of some of the worst executive branch abuses,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday night.
She added in her statement: “The interests of justice demand Congress act immediately to create an independent, bipartisan commission to pursue the Trump-Russia investigation free from the administration’s attempts to silence it.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, expressed a similar view. “Now more than ever, we need an independent investigation into Russian ties to ensure American people can have full confidence in findings,” he said Tuesday. The phrase “now more than ever” appeared in many other statements issued by Democrats on Tuesday.
Calls for an independent probe are becoming an emotional rallying cry for Democrats nationwide. On Sunday night at a fundraising dinner for Iowa Democrats in Des Moines, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., earned cheers and a partial standing ovation when the emcee reminded the crowd that the senator was one of the first Democrats to call for an independent probe. Later, Klobuchar mentioned her support for an independent investigation during her speech and earned another round of hearty applause.
Among Republicans, only Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime Trump foil, has called for an independent investigation separate from ongoing probes by the House and Senate intelligence panels.
But Democratic aides said Tuesday night they were “heartened” to see several senior Republicans cast doubt Tuesday on Trump’s decision to fire Comey. They especially cited Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is up for re-election next year in a contest that Democrats believe could become competitive if anti-Trump sentiments sweep the nation.
Burr, who is leading the intelligence’s panels probe of Russian meddling, said in a statement that he is “troubled by the timing and reasoning” for Comey’s firing.
“His dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee,” he added.
Corker said that Comey’s “removal at this particular time will raise questions. It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion, and it is imperative that President Trump nominate a well-respected and qualified individual to lead the bureau at this critical time.”
Flake tweeted: “I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who like Flake did not support Trump’s campaign last year, added that he would use his position as chairman of Judiciary Committee oversight subcommittee to press for more information from the Justice Department. He also said, “The timing of this firing is very troubling.”
Other Republicans criticized the way Trump dismissed Comey – if not the actual decision to do so.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who represents a South Florida swing district, commented on news reports that Comey learned about his dismissal from television news reports that were airing while he addressed FBI personnel at a Los Angeles field office.
“No one should find out via the television that they’ve been fired. If true, that’s poor form and plain unprofessional,” Curbelo tweeted.
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