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On Capitol Hill, Sen. Cory Booker Leads Efforts To Protect Special Counsel Mueller

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

How to protect special counsel Robert Mueller? This seems to be a serious concern on Capitol Hill. Yesterday news broke that Mueller was using a new grand jury as part of his investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. And the same day, senators introduced two separate bipartisan bills aimed at making it difficult for the president to remove Mueller.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker is co-sponsor of one of the bills introduced to protect the special counsel. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

CORY BOOKER: Thank you very much. It's good to be back on.

CORNISH: So your legislation is co-sponsored with Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican. Can you talk about why you feel Mueller needs protection?

BOOKER: Well, I think a lot of us have seen the president take sort of veiled attacks on the special prosecutor, and some of the people that are in his team as well seem to be trying to undermine the legitimacy of the special prosecutor. And there's a lot of concern that we need the special prosecutor to get to the bottom of this investigation because of the seriousness of the investigation. A foreign power has been working to undermine our elections and potentially working with Americans in that process.

And so I'm grateful for the conversations I've had with my Republican colleagues on, yes, this is a very serious problem. We know this actually did happen. And we want to make sure it doesn't happen in the future and that this special prosecutor is an important element of that.

CORNISH: So your bill would require the administration to prove to a panel of federal judges that there is, quote, unquote, "cause" - right? - to fire the special counsel. What would be the definition of cause, right? What to your mind would be a fireable offense?

BOOKER: There are actually, in the DOJ, statutes, laid-out reasons for removal. But the question is, who can serve as a judge in those removals? You know, what is misconduct or dereliction of duty or incapacity or conflict of interest or - the nebulous one - or good cause for removal? I don't believe that an administration that is under investigation themselves should be sitting in judge of that special prosecutor and judging what is good cause. Ultimately you need to have a check on that.

And again, if there's a good reason for removal, I agree there should be a process for that removal. But it shouldn't be the indiscriminate beliefs of a president whose member - members of his campaign team or senior team are part of that investigation. That produces a conflict in and of itself.

CORNISH: So I assume you are talking about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was a part of the Trump campaign. But he's already recused himself from this investigation. And the deputy attorney general has said he would not fire Mueller without cause. Why are those assurances not enough?

BOOKER: Because, again, we don't know what kind of pressure the president could be putting on those players. We also don't know who the attorney general will be in the future. Yes, you I'm sure have heard rumors about him trying to remove Jeff Sessions or shame him out of the job. We need to make sure that there is a credible check on the president through the attorney general - whoever that might be - firing of the special prosecutor. I think that it is objective. It can help us avoid a constitutional crisis. And it could put further confidence and faith in the system and the process no matter who you are or what your political background.

CORNISH: And so your solution is a panel of federal judges. And you think that they can be impartial in such a situation.

BOOKER: Absolutely. The judicial branch plays that role in numerous other circumstances, conflicts between Congress and the president. That's the right group to stand and make that judgment.

CORNISH: If the special council were to be terminated before any of this proposed legislation to protect him pass, then what would happen?

BOOKER: One can only speculate. My belief is that it would really precipitate a significant crisis in Washington, D.C., where both Republicans and Democrats in Congress would think that that move was unacceptable. And it would give a bit of a constitutional crisis, which is what we're trying to avoid with this legislation.

CORNISH: That's Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey. We reached him in New Jersey via Skype. Senator, thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BOOKER: I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about my legislation. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.