The Republican senator is eager to shield the special counsel from Trump — regardless of potential blowback from conservatives or the president.
Thom Tillis isn’t the kind of Republican who typically challenges Donald Trump.
The North Carolina senator backs the president’s agenda and holds his tongue when it comes to the tweets. As others abandoned Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged, Tillis maintained his endorsement.
But now he’s a lead sponsor of a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from interference by Trump — enraging conservatives and potentially risking the president’s ire. It’s the biggest gamble Tillis has taken as a Republican senator, but one he believes is philosophically consistent with how the GOP would be treating a Democratic president.
Tillis doesn’t think Trump will ultimately fire Mueller even as the president rages over the expanding Russia probe. But he has an impassioned response for his conservative critics nonetheless: “Spare me.”
“Courage is when you know you’re going to do something that’s going to anger your base,” Tillis said in an interview in his Senate office.
“The same people who would criticize me for filing this bill would be absolutely angry if I wasn’t pounding the table for this bill if we were dealing with Hillary Clinton,” he argued. “So spare me your righteous indignation.”
He argues that passing the law now would offer future protections against liberal presidents under investigation, specifically “a President Warren or a President Sanders or a President Booker.” And if successful, he’d remove a major talking point from Democrats who have been slamming the GOP for not doing more to safeguard Mueller and the rule of law.
But more than anything, Tillis wants to take a stand against what he calls “situational ethics”: Politicians changing their stances based on who is in the White House without sticking to any deeply held philosophical moorings.
“The only way you get these things done [is] when you have somebody who is willing to take the heat when you’re in the majority,” Tillis said. “You see it all the time. Hammer the table when it benefits you, not when it disadvantages your guy that has the same jersey on. There’s no rational explanation except being duplicitous.”
Getting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it to the floor, however, will be far more difficult. McConnell and other Republican leaders have expressed concern that the bill may not be constitutional because it erodes executive powers. It’s also an explosive issue that would divide the party, which McConnell always attempts to avoid.
Tillis, a member of the Senate GOP whip team, said it is on him to convince McConnell that it’s worth bringing up.
“It’s on the member to present a case for using chamber time for the bill. It is on the member to convince the leader that we have the votes to pass it,” Tillis said. “This isn’t the leader’s problem. … This is my responsibility.”
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