Leahy talks about Mueller probe, other issues
Leahy, who was in Bennington to meet with the development group spearheading the Putnam Block project, said he has "never seen a White House so disregard the laws or act as though the president is somehow above the law."
While in the Senate since 1975, the Vermont Democrat wasn't in Congress during the Watergate era, which ended with President Richard Nixon resigning. But people he has spoken to who were there at the time "see too many parallels" to the current era, Leahy said.
He commented after President Trump had fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general.
The appointment touched off criticism among many lawmakers and officials, as well as protests in communities around the nation. They urged Congress to ensure the continued independence of Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible Trump campaign collusion.
Whitaker, who has appeared on television denouncing the Mueller probe, was selected by the president over higher-ranking officials in the Justice Department, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Leahy said a bill previously was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee to protect Mueller's status and the investigation, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "wouldn't bring it up for a vote on the full floor [of the Senate]."
He added, "A number of us have been talking the last couple of days — we are going to back and, next week when we're in session, and bring it up. Pass it in the House and the Senate, and do it. We have to do that or, you know, it could be disastrous."
Whitaker "is not qualified to be there," Leahy said. "He has too many conflicts. He has publicly stated so many times that in fact the president is above the law, and the investigation should end. We should put somebody in who is independent."
In contrast, Leahy said, Sessions "did to the right thing in recusing himself [from the Mueller investigation.]"
Of the mid-term election results, Leahy said there has been cooperation with Republican senators on some legislation, and he expects that to continue, especially in light of the Democratic takeover in the House.
For example, he said, the House under recent Republican control often would not support legislation the Senate could compromise on because of the influence of more conservative members.
But having the Senate still in Republican hands "is going to hurt" when it comes to judicial appointments, Leahy said, as Democrats lack the votes to reject presidential nominations.
"The president has made it very clear that he wants federal judges that will, in effect, follow his directive. Well, the Construction says it is an independent branch."
Republicans "will be able to get the judges through, because they have the majority," he said. "But what it will do is greatly diminish the integrity of the federal court system ... That could cause damage to the system that it would take decades to repair."
Leahy said that while he was practicing law in Vermont early in his career, "I always thought it was an independent court. Whenever I was trying a case, I didn't care if it was a Republican or Democrat; it wouldn't make any difference."
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal.
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