MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And now we turn to another story unfolding on Capitol Hill today - new moves to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. The White House says President Trump believes Mueller has gone too far in investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, prompting this question at yesterday's White House briefing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JON KARL: Does the President believe he has the power to fire special counsel Robert Mueller? Does he believe that's within his power?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: He certainly believes he has the power to do so.
KELLY: The response there from press secretary Sarah Sanders. Well, this morning, four senators announced a bipartisan bill to protect Mueller. One of them is Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, and he joins me now. Hey there, senator. It's nice to speak to you. Your bill - is it intended as a warning shot to the president?
CHRIS COONS: Well, this is a bill that the four of us have worked on for a number of months, and it's intended to make it harder for the president to interfere with Robert Mueller's investigation either by firing him or by interfering with the chain of command. It's intended to communicate to him that that would be unwise, that it would not just be undermining the rule of law but that it would frankly not be in his best interest either.
KELLY: Right. Let me quickly sketch out for people how your proposal would work. Your bill would provide for a court review. It would allow a panel of federal judges to determine, if Mueller were fired, if the firing was for good cause. And if not, it would provide for reinstatement. Why do you believe, Senator, that that's the way to go, that that's the best way to protect the special counsel?
COONS: Well, it also provides that during that period, the work product of the special counsel's investigation would be protected so it couldn't be destroyed or swept away or removed. And it allows for the reinstatement, the resumption of the direction of the investigation by the special counsel if that three-judge panel determines that it was improper for the president to fire him or for the firing entity - the agency, the deputy attorney general - to have done so at the direction of the president. I think this sends an important signal that a bipartisan group of four senators is putting the rule of law first and is stepping forward to take what is currently protections in DOJ regulations and putting it into statute.
KELLY: On this question of whether the president can fire Mueller, a lot of legal experts disagree with the White House position. They say the president would have to order the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein - order Rosenstein to fire Mueller. So is your concern that the president might just fire Rosenstein?
COONS: Well, it is abundantly clear. I agree with the legal scholars that DOJ regulations prevent the president from directly firing him. I think our concern is that he might go through a Saturday Night Massacre series of firings where he perhaps fires the attorney general, fires the deputy attorney general and, through them, finds a way to replace the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, with someone willing to fire the special counsel. This would put in statute protections against when and how the special counsel could be fired.
KELLY: So in short, there are a lot of hoops you think that the president would have to jump through, but you think that's not enough; there needs to be something in statute.
COONS: Well, if the president's going to be achingly precise and careful in following DOJ regulations, correct. But this is a president who we've seen be unconventional, unpredictable. He might do a two-step move like sign an executive order repealing those DOJ regulations and then directly fire Robert Mueller. That wouldn't really be kosher. But this is a president who's shown himself perfectly willing to do things that are just a little out of the ordinary.
KELLY: Let me ask you this. If you can get this legislation passed, which is still an if - some of your GOP colleagues are raising objections to it. But if it were to pass, it goes to Trump's desk, where one wonders whether he would be inclined to veto it.
COONS: I think he might well be inclined to veto it. But I'll remind you just last year, on a strong bipartisan basis, the Senate and the House took up bills that would direct the President to impose sanctions on Russia for their interference in our last election. The president was initially strongly opposed. He said he might well veto it. He said he didn't welcome it. But ultimately it passed with such strong bipartisan margins that the president felt compelled not just to sign it but ultimately, as he did in the last few weeks, to use those new powers and to impose sanctions on Russia. It is possible that this bill would similarly be a vehicle to save the president from himself and to allow the special counsel investigation to reach its conclusion unimpeded by the president.
KELLY: Senator Coons, thanks very much.
COONS: Thank you.
KELLY: That's Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.