Sen. Orrin Hatch says Trump would be ‘foolish’ to fire special counsel Mueller, but doesn’t support legislation to prevent a firing

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Washington • The congressional Republican rebukes of President Donald Trump for attacking special counsel Robert Mueller were sharp, but selective: They defended Mueller against the president’s tweets, although there were no indications the lawmakers plan to take legislative steps to protect his probe.

Among them was Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, who said it would be a “foolish action” for Trump to fire Mueller but added it’s too early to pass a bill making it difficult to do so.

“I have urged the White House in public and in private to allow Mueller to continue his investigation uninterrupted,” Hatch said in a statement Monday. “I know Mueller well and believe him to be a straight shooter, and I continue to believe that giving Mueller the time and support necessary to get to the bottom of things is in the best interest of all parties involved.”

Hatch added he didn’t think Trump would actually fire Mueller.

“My conversations with the White House have led me to believe legislation is not necessary at this point because I do not believe the president would take such a foolish action,” Hatch said.

It has been almost eight months since lawmakers introduced a pair of bipartisan bills to prevent Trump — or any president — from being able to order the firing of a special counsel without a reason that can pass muster with a panel of three federal judges.

But, in that time, support for the effort has flagged under the weight of political distractions, constitutional concerns, and substantive differences between the two proposals that have kept lawmakers from merging them into one unified bill.

Most Democrats see the bills as the only guaranteed means lawmakers have of protecting the special counsel’s probe from the president’s potential wrath. But in the past several months, Republicans have tried to separate the bills from their inspiration, arguing that Trump would never take the step of orchestrating Mueller’s firing.

The president’s weekend Twitter attacks on the special counsel — the first to mention Mueller by name — do not appear to have changed that conviction.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., the co-author of one of the special counsel protection bills, pledged on CNN Sunday morning “to make sure that Mr. Mueller can continue to do his job without any interference.” He noted that if Trump tries to fire Mueller, “that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.”

But when asked if Graham’s words meant there would be any new urgency to take up the measures to protect the special counsel, Graham’s spokesman said he was “not expecting any change.”

Congressional Republican leaders also dodged direct questions Sunday about the fate of the bills in light of the president’s Twitter tirade.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., never furnished a comment, while House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., spokeswoman AshLee Strong simply noted that “as the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.”

By some leaders’ reckoning, the special counsel bills are not yet ripe for consideration. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has said he will not schedule the bills for a markup until they are merged into a single piece of legislation.

Negotiations to merge the two measures have been continuing, albeit sporadically, for months, and are focused on one chief issue: whether the panel of three federal judges ought to weigh in on an order to fire a special counsel before it can take effect, or after.

But even if that difference is resolved, Grassley has said he is additionally concerned that any bill that attempts to restrict the president’s ability to fire executive appointees would be unconstitutional. On Sunday, Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said he was “not sure that the issues Sen. Grassley had discussed earlier have been resolved.”

In the meantime, the president’s tweets are wearing thin the patience of Democrats, who believe the president must be restrained.

“Reminder: there’s a .bipartisan. bill to ensure Special Counsel Mueller and future Special Counsels are not removed without cause,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., who partnered with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., to write one of the special counsel bills, tweeted out Sunday. “We’ve had a hearing, we’ve debated it, and we should pass it into law.”

A spokesman for Tillis did not return a request for comment Sunday.

“McCabe firing — a shot at Special Counsel — makes legislation protecting the investigation more vital than ever,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of Graham’s special counsel bill. “Investigation putting Oval Office under siege — raising specter of more firings.”

At this juncture, there appears to be more urgency behind an effort to hold a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on what led to the decision to fire deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, a decision announced late Friday, just over 24 hours before McCabe would have been able to retire with a full pension. Graham expressly called for such a hearing on CNN Sunday, effectively joining Democrats’ efforts led by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., to have Sessions justify the decision to senators in a formal hearing.

But calls for measures to protect the special counsel are nowhere near as specific or resolute. Of the GOP lawmakers who took to the airwaves Sunday, only Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., appeared to urge his Republican colleagues to do more than offer spoken rebukes of the president’s tweets.

“All along it was, once he goes after Mueller, then we’ll take action,” Flake said on CNN.

“I hope there’s pushback now to keep the president from going there,” he said.

Tribune reporter Taylor W. Anderson contributed to this article.