U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders – along with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch – have been calling for an independent Department of Justice investigation for days, their voices part of a chorus composed mostly of Democratic lawmakers.
On Wednesday, a deputy attorney general named former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the Russian investigation.
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that Trump had shared classified intelligence information with the Russians during a meeting in the Oval Office.
The pressure for an outside review heightened a day later, when the New York Times reported that Trump had asked the FBI Director, James Comey, to halt an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, over his contacts with Russian officials. The investigation started over allegations that the Russians interfered in the November election.
Trump fired Comey last week.
The deputy attorney general who made the appointment, Rod Rosenstein, was also under mounting political pressure after he wrote a letter to Trump justifying Comey’s dismissal by criticizing the FBI director’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Sanders called the appointment of Mueller “a positive step,” adding he was “hopeful” that Mueller would allow the investigation to continue unimpeded.
“To ensure the American people have full confidence in this investigation, it must be conducted in an open and transparent manner and be given the full resources it needed,” Sanders said in a statement. “Additionally, the ongoing investigations by the both the Senate and House must continue.”
The Wednesday evening letter from Rosenstein also heartened Leahy, who had, hours earlier, decried the handling of the investigation on the Senate floor, saying “at this critical time, it is not acceptable to remain on the sidelines.”
Leahy said he knew Mueller well from his FBI oversight work on the Senate Judiciary Committee when Mueller ran the agency between 2001 and 2013.
“He is widely respected in Congress, across the political spectrum,” Leahy said. “I welcome this development and am glad that Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein did the right thing by appointing a special counsel. Director Mueller has an enormous responsibility, to impartially determine the extent to which Russia has interfered in our democracy, and the depth of any connections between this administration and Russian officials.”
Leahy has been pushing for Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor since the attorney’s March confirmation hearings before the Judiciary Committee. Department rules call for the appointment of a special prosecutor should involvement by federal prosecutors “present a conflict of interest for the department.”
In March, Rosenstein made no pledge to Leahy and other Democrats to appoint a special counsel.
“As far as I’m concerned, every investigation conducted by the Department of Justice is an independent investigation,” he said. “We prosecute tens of thousands of people every year, and every one of those defendants deserves an independent prosecutor. And so I would be certain we had independent investigators to conduct those investigations.”
Rosenstein briefed all 100 senators late Thursday on the ongoing Russia investigation.
Meanwhile, Leahy is also requesting more information on Trump’s business ties across the world, which could potentially violate the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In a Thursday letter joined by 16 other Senators, Leahy pressed the Trump Organization for more information on his foreign business ties. Two of the countries Trump is set to visit on his first trip abroad are ones where he holds assets — Saudi Arabia and Israel.