Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is calling on the chamber’s Republicans to take steps to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, decrying that the probe is “under assault.”
“It is with some trepidation that I offer thoughts on how the good people still serving in the Senate should address a current crisis, but staying silent is no longer an option,” Frist wrote in an Op-Ed article The Washington Post posted Friday night. “Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is under assault, and that is wrong. No matter who is in the White House, we Republicans must stand up for the sanctity of our democracy and the rule of law.”
President Donald Trump has led much of the assault on the special counsel, repeatedly calling the investigation a “witch hunt” that is being pursued strictly for partisan purposes ― attacks that have been amplified by Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs. Trump recently said he mourns the “young and beautiful” lives “destroyed” by the probe.
Frist, a lung and heart transplant surgeon who now lives in Nashville and is part of a wealthy Tennessee family, said his fellow Republicans can no longer look the other way as “tweet by tweet, with each new assault on the Justice Department’s independence, the bedrock principles of our party crumble.”
“When Trump talks about firing the special counsel or his power to pardon himself, he makes it seem as though he has something to hide,” Frist wrote. “The president must remember that only Mueller’s exoneration can lift the cloud hanging over the White House.”
“I, for one, do not think the president colluded with Russian President Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 election,” he wrote. “But I do believe Putin purposely tried to undermine our democratic process.”
Frist, whose father and brother started the for-profit Hospital Corporation of America, was first elected to the Senate in 1994 and served as majority leader from early 2003 to early 2007. He honored a pledge he made in his first campaign to only serve two terms, and did not seek re-election in 2006.
Frist noted in his Post piece that “the Senate I served in was not devoid of partisanship.” Indeed, the divide between the two parties intensified during his time as majority leader, especially over the Iraq war and national security powers granted President George W. Bush’s administration following the 9/11 attacks.
The Senate GOP majority that Frist presided over was criticized for not being tough enough in exercising oversight over the Bush administration as it expanded its “war on terror” and questions arose about the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Still, Frist wrote for the Post, “My hope was that patriotism would always take priority over party.”
Many members of Congress ― including some Republicans ― have pushed for legislation that would limit the circumstances under which Trump could fire Mueller. But the current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has resisted such efforts, saying he sees no need for such a measure.
While Frist wrote that he has in the past worried about “runaway legal authority” and “battled against activist judges,” he added that, “I don’t worry about Robert Mueller. He is a lifelong Republican with a career of distinguished service running the Criminal Division of the Justice Department for President Ronald Reagan and serving as [Bush’s] FBI director, twice unanimously confirmed by the Senate.”
Mueller’s investigation is also getting results, with 23 indictments and five guilty pleas in just more than a year, Frist pointed out.
“Congress must never abandon its role as an equal branch of government,” he wrote. “In this moment, that means protecting Mueller’s investigation. We’re at our best as senators and Republicans when we defend our institutions. But more than that, it’s our best face as Americans.”
This story has been updated with more background on Frist.