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Leahy, Sanders Say Special Counsel Important First Step In Trump Investigation

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Capitol Hill in April 2017.
Alex Brandon
Sen. Patrick Leahy, shown here on April 25 on Capitol Hill in Washington, says this issue is the most serious threat to democracy in his lifetime.

Even before the Justice Department named former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, all three members of Vermont's congressional delegation said events in Washington this week highlighted the urgent need for an independent investigation into the issue.

Vermont's two senators say Mueller's appointment is an important first step.

For the past few weeks, Sens. Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch have all called for an independent investigation into reports that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There is also a charge that some members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials.

But several things have happened this week that the delegation says makes an independent commission or special prosecutor more important than ever.

First, the Washington Post reported that last week, President Trump shared classified intelligence information with Russian officials about terrorist activities in the Middle East.

Then, the New York Times reported that before he was fired by President Trump, FBI Director James Comey wrote in a memo that the president asked him not to pursue an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's ties with Russian officials.

Late Wednesday, Sen. Leahy applauded the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, saying in a statement "this is important and urgent work." 

"I have never felt so strongly about something in all the years I have been in the Senate,” Leahy said in an earlier interview. 

"I have never seen something that has worried me as much in all those years in the Senate, and if we don't stand up together, Republicans and Democrats, future generations are going to say, 'Where were you? Where were you?'" - Sen. Patrick Leahy

There is also the question of whether or not the Trump administration tapes conversations in the Oval Office. The president himself raised this issue in a tweet about Comey. Since then, the White House has refused to confirm or deny if the tapes exist. 

Leahy says it's a question that needs to be answered. 

"If there are tapes, I would hope they would be turned over voluntarily. Otherwise, they should be subpoenaed in the same way that President Nixon's tapes were subpoenaed," Leahy says.

Leahy says it is imperative to find out the full scope of Russian activity as soon as possible.

"If they think they can get away with it this time, they're going to be back in everything from Congressional, gubernatorial races to the next presidential race. We have to stop it today, now! Once and for all, for the sake of our own safety and our country, and the sake of our allies."

Rep. Welch says an independent commission is needed to help restore public confidence in the country's political system.

"The American people are entitled to have confidence that the rule of law is sacrosanct, and there are doubts being raised about that by the conduct that we've seen on display here," Welch said.

And Welch says Trump could be impeached if it can be proven that the president personally tried to impede investigations looking at ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

"Obstruction of justice is a crime. And if there is obstruction of justice, that definitely is an impeachable offense," Welch says. "The president has the responsibility to enforce the law not suppress investigations into the breaking of the law."

Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a written statement that: "The appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation is a positive step. I am hopeful that he will us get to the bottom of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, including any role the president may have played." 

Update 6:15 p.m. The Justice Department is appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, NPR reports.

Update 7:38 p.m. This story was updated to include latest reaction from Sens. Leahy and Sanders.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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