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A Brief History of Calls for an Independent Prosecutor

Republicans have previously embraced calls for special counsel

Indiana’s Dan Coats was among Senate Republicans calling for an independent counsel to investigate alleged ties between the Clinton White House and China in 1997. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Indiana’s Dan Coats was among Senate Republicans calling for an independent counsel to investigate alleged ties between the Clinton White House and China in 1997. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Calls from Congress for a special prosecutor to investigate alleged foreign meddling in U.S. elections aren’t all that new.

Back when the old independent counsel law was still in effect, Republican senators called for just such an appointment to probe alleged efforts by the Chinese to influence President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, and House Republicans, as recently as last year, pushed legislation to make it easier for Congress to empower independent prosecutors.

The Senate actually held a party-line floor vote in 1997 on a resolution for such an appointment, with all 55 GOP senators in office at the time voting in the affirmative. That includes current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley.

Dan Coats, now President Donald Trump’s nominee to be director of national intelligence, was in his first tour of duty as Indiana senator back then. He called the allegations of Chinese influence and a fundraising scandal involving the Democratic National Committee and Clinton White House offices “arguably a crime against democracy itself.”

“The need for this investigation should be beyond question, proven on the front page of the newspaper every morning,” Coats said. “Was the executive power of the White House abused to improperly influence the outcome of an American presidential election? Were foreign governments invited by the Democratic Party and the Clinton administration to corrupt American elections?”

At his confirmation hearing on Feb. 28, Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee he would cooperate with the panel’s investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in last fall’s presidential election.

“I think this is something that needs to be investigated and addressed,” he said. Republicans have largely stated that any inquiry of the Russia connection, including Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, should stay within the purview of the Intelligence committees in the House and Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer suggested last Thursday that it might be time to revive a narrower version of the independent counsel law that provided for what Coats and other Senate Republicans were seeking.

The law lapsed in 1999, in no small part because of the partisan rancor over the Clinton-era investigation by Ken Starr in the separate probe that led to Clinton’s impeachment.

Schumer, a New York Democrat, was speaking before Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his recusal from any investigations into the alleged Russian meddling in last year’s election.

The minority leader said his caucus would first hope that the Justice Department would take appropriate action to allow an independent investigation without a new law. He added that any effort would be narrowly tailored to avoid an inquiry with the broad reach of Starr’s investigation.

“If the Justice Department drags its feet and refuses to appoint a special prosecutor, or selects someone with insufficient independence, there is another route. We will then urge Sen. McConnell and Speaker Ryan to work with Democrats to create a new and improved version of the independent counsel law — which would give a three-judge panel the authority to appoint an independent counsel,” Schumer said.

Schumer’s colleagues will get the chance Tuesday morning to ask Sessions’ proposed deputies where their thinking is when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the nominations of Rod J. Rosenstein to be deputy attorney general and Rachel L. Brand to be associate attorney general.

Last year, Ohio GOP Rep. Michael R. Turner introduced legislation with eight Republican co-sponsors to bring back the authority for Congress to request independent inquires of actions by senior executive branch officials up to and including the president.

Turner and his colleagues wanted to empower an independent counsel to look into legal questions surrounding Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of State. That was in response to FBI Director James B. Comey’s first announcement that the review of Clinton was closed.

“I believe it is in the best interest of the country that the independent counsel statute is reauthorized to review the findings of the FBI’s investigation into Secretary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information, and to make an independent and impartial decision about whether to prosecute the former secretary for potential criminal activity,” Turner said last July.

No one has introduced similar legislation in the 115th Congress, and Turner’s office did not respond to a request for comment on his current thinking.

“The urgent need for a special prosecutor is underscored by Republicans’ previous demands [that] one be appointed to take over any Department of Justice investigation into a sitting president’s campaign,” said Harrell Kirstein, a spokesman for American Bridge, a liberal research group. “It’s time for Senate Republicans to live up to the standard they set so Americans can learn the truth about Donald Trump’s ties to the dangerous Russian interests that tampered with our election.”

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