WASHINGTON - Mike Gallagher says it would be bad for the country if the president fired special counsel Robert Mueller.
Jim Sensenbrenner says he respects Mueller and thinks he should be allowed to finish his job.
Sean Duffy says Mueller’s investigation is “based on a sham.”
These three Republicans represent the Wisconsin congressional districts where Donald Trump enjoyed his biggest victory margins in 2016.
But their comments illustrate the different signals GOP lawmakers are sending about their level of support for the Mueller investigation as it has come under attack from President Trump and some of his allies.
The Journal Sentinel asked all 10 members of Congress from Wisconsin — six Republicans and four Democrats — how they view Trump’s recent criticisms of Mueller, whether they think Mueller should be allowed to complete his job, and how they would react if Trump fired Mueller.
Democrats said they supported legislation aimed at limiting the president’s ability to dismiss Mueller. And two — Mark Pocan of Dane County and Gwen Moore of Milwaukee — suggested firing the special counsel would be an impeachable offense.
No Republican expressed support for bills to protect Mueller, saying such legislation exceeds the authority of Congress or is unnecessary.
“That legislation is obviously unconstitutional. The … Constitution gives the president almost unlimited authority over executive branch employees,” said Sensenbrenner.
But in an interview, Sensenbrenner said he respects Mueller, had a productive relationship with him when Sensenbrenner chaired the House judiciary committee and Mueller was FBI director, and “I’ve publicly stated Mueller ought to be allowed to complete his job.”
Sensenbrenner was not critical of Trump for his attacks on Mueller, which escalated earlier this month when the president invoked Mueller by name on Twitter in assailing the probe as biased. The White House has said there are no plans to dismiss Mueller.
“I take the president at his word that he’s not going to fire Mueller,” said Sensenbrenner. “I think he’s entitled to his opinion (about Mueller) just like Bill Clinton was entitled to his opinions on the Starr investigation.”
Green Bay’s Gallagher was the most pointed of any Wisconsin Republican in expressing concern about the issue underlying the Mueller investigation — Russian interference in the U.S. elections.
Asked, “Are you troubled by President Trump's attacks on the special counsel?” Gallagher answered in a series of written responses to questions the newspaper asked of each lawmaker: “Our nation’s problems are not best solved using Twitter.”
“Would firing Mueller be bad for the country?” he was asked. He answered, “Yes, because it would spark even greater partisan hysteria than we've seen so far, thereby distracting everyone from the real issues of Russian aggression, and potential law enforcement and legal lapses.”
He was asked: “Are the president's attacks on the special counsel a threat to the rule of law? Would the special counsel's firing be such a threat?”
Gallagher answered, “I’m confident our rule of law is stronger than Twitter. This is also why the founders, in their infinite wisdom, separated powers in our government.”
Gallagher, who has been very critical of Russia’s role, said: “If Congress is concerned about Russian aggression and violations of our sovereignty (as it should be), we should uncover any and all involvement, and hold those who broke the law accountable. Mueller has already indicted at least 17 individuals with criminal charges, including 13 Russians, and the administration (to their credit) used the power we granted under (last year’s sanctions bill) to sanction many of these same individuals. We should sanction (Vladimir) Putin and his corrupt cronies, and put our full economic, diplomatic, and military might at use to push back and hold Russia accountable.”
On legislation to protect Mueller, Gallagher said that "while I believe firing the special counsel in this situation would be a serious mistake," he has questions about the constitutionality of such bills, and has asked legal scholars for their views on the subject before taking a position.
Other Republicans responded more tersely to the newspaper’s questions.
Glenn Grothman told a reporter Tuesday: “I just finished a day of listening sessions. My constituents are worried about excessive government spending, health care costs and school safety. And, therefore, I am spending my time on the above issues. If and when Mr. Mueller is let go, I will develop a position at that time.”
Duffy, whose northern Wisconsin district gave Trump his biggest victory margin in Wisconsin (just over 20 points), responded with this statement: “I’m not going to speculate about what will happen to Mueller, but his investigation is based on a sham. The only collusion that we have seen is from the Clinton campaign and Democrat National Committee paying an ex-British spy who used Russian sources to write a phony dossier. I agree with Chairmen Goodlatte and Gowdy in their call for a special counsel into the abuses of power and poor decision-making of the DOJ in 2016 and 2017. President Trump knows there has been no collusion and is rightfully frustrated when the media perpetuates this story.”
An aide to Sen. Ron Johnson referred the newspaper to a recent radio interview Johnson did in which he said he wasn’t concerned about Trump firing Mueller, saying at that time: "I don’t think he will — he said he won’t ... and I think there are plenty of members that have talked about that — that would be very counterproductive for the president to do that.”
In the same interview with WHBY radio last week, Johnson also expressed some reservations about the Mueller investigation:
“I really wanted the Senate and House intelligence committees to complete their work before we even considered appointing a special counsel. The problem with special counsels — the problem with any prosecution as it relates to congressional investigations — is once you have a criminal investigation or something that might lead to prosecution it gets very difficult for members of Congress to obtain the information they need to conclude our work as well. I think it was unfortunate that Robert Mueller was appointed prior to the completion of that work.”
Aides to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville referred the newspaper to a raft of public statements Ryan has made about the Mueller investigation.
At a news conference March 20, Ryan said: “The special counsel should be free to follow through with its investigation to completion without interference. Absolutely. I am confident that he’ll be able to do that. I’ve received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration. We have a system based upon the rule of law in this country. We have a justice system and no one is above that justice system.”
In comments last year on a Wisconsin talk radio show, Ryan said, “Remember, Bob Mueller is a Republican who was appointed by a Republican who served in the Republican administration who crossed over and stayed on 'til his term ended. I don't think many people are saying Bob Mueller is a person who is a biased partisan. He's really, sort of, anything but.”
Among Wisconsin Democrats, Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she backs two bipartisan bills to protect Mueller’s independence.
“There is a pattern of the president attempting to interfere with, and undermine, the investigation,” she said in written answers to the Journal Sentinel’s questions.
Baldwin said, “Firing the special counsel would be crossing a red line and a clear attack on the rule of law,” and called on lawmakers in both parties to “speak out and impress upon President Trump that if he has nothing to hide, he should cooperate with the Mueller investigation, not end it.”
Baldwin called Russia a hostile power and said, “Putin directed an attack on our democracy that interfered with our elections. This isn’t a hoax and Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation is not a witch hunt.”
Pocan has also signed on to legislation aimed at protecting Mueller.
“I've watched (President Trump) repeatedly try to do everything he can to derail the Mueller investigation, including his most recent attempts to try and intimidate and threaten people who might be trying to testify,” Pocan said in an interview.
If Mueller were fired, "That would be something that would rise to the level of me actively pursuing the impeachment process,” said Pocan. “With an issue like that, I think there are enough rank-and-file Republicans that I've had private conversations with that also share some of the things I have in this area. I think we would be at a point that we actually could impeach the president. I think that would be the proper response for someone who obstructed justice."
In the event of Mueller's firing, Moore said she would "prevail upon Paul Ryan to allow various articles of impeachment to come forward."
"If he gets fired then presumably Donald Trump and his supporters will see that as the end of the investigation," she said. "I think clearly that would be obstruction of justice and that should be the first article of impeachment."
Moore said that Trump has attacked the courts and an independent Justice Department and Mueller's potential ouster would be "the crown jewel" of such attacks.
She remained hopeful that Mueller's investigation would proceed and cautioned about the enormity of the stakes.
"The president said right from the beginning that his financial affairs, his businesses in his mind, were off-limits," she said. "He only wanted them to look at so-called collusion and 'there's no collusion.' "
"I think as the president gets more irritated by Mueller of getting close to him, not only is there a threat of him being fired, there's a threat of saber rattling with Iran and North Korea," she added. "So this is a very frightening time for all of us."
"I think we need to protect this investigation for the sake, not only of our country, but of the world," she said.
Democrat Ron Kind of La Crosse said in a statement:
"Any type of foreign government interference in our election process is an all-hands-on-deck moment. We need to find out what weaknesses we have in our election processes, and take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"The president and his administration must continue to allow Special Counsel Mueller and his team conduct their investigation, so we can get back to dealing with issues that matter to Wisconsinites, like creating jobs and growing our local economy."