Republicans block Senate bid to protect Mueller probe

Republican Senator Jeff Flake (L) and Democratic Senator Christopher Coons hold a press conference on legislation to protect Robert Mueller's investigation (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
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Washington (AFP) - Republican leaders on Wednesday blocked a bipartisan US Senate effort to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, leaving his Russia investigation exposed amid new moves interpreted as threats to the probe.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum have spoken out about the need to maintain the integrity of the investigation into Moscow's interference in the 2016 US elections.

But one week after Trump sacked attorney general Jeff Sessions and installed the ousted official's chief of staff Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, Senate Republican leaders refused to allow a vote on legislation that would protect Mueller.

Whitaker has publicly criticized the probe, and Democrats fear he could see to bring it to a halt.

When Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a critic of the president, and Democratic Senator Chris Coons introduced their measure and sought a swift unanimous consent vote on the floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell objected.

"The president now has this investigation in his sights and we all know it," Flake told colleagues after McConnell's objection.

"This is not a moment for our national leadership to be weak or irresolute or compromised in any way."

Flake, who is retiring from the Senate next January, said he and Coons will try "again and again" to bring the legislation to the floor.

Flake also threatened to withhold his votes on dozens of judicial nominees awaiting confirmation on the Senate floor or movement in the Judiciary Committee, until there is a floor vote on his Mueller protection bill.

McConnell has said confirming judges is a top priority.

Republicans have repeatedly said they believe Mueller and his investigation are safe.

"The Mueller investigation is not going to be interfered with or curtailed. I think there's broad support here to let him finish his job," number two Senate Republican John Cornyn told AFP Tuesday.

But Coons challenged his colleagues to pass the measure.

Given Trump's repeated actions and statements, including declarations that the probe is a witch hunt, Coons said, "why pose this risk, when a simple vote on the floor of the Senate could move this towards enactment?"

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer has said that if Whitaker refused to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller and his probe, Democrats will seek to add legislation protecting Mueller to a must-pass spending bill to come under consideration in the coming weeks.