Attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia are calling for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election. Those officials made the request in a letter on Thursday to Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The request came in the wake of President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday. The FBI is investigating Russian influence on the election and possible collusion with members of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“We view the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in the middle of his investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election as a violation of the public trust,” the attorneys general wrote. “We urge you to consider the damage to our democratic system of any attempts by the administration to derail and delegitimize the investigation.” The letter called for the immediate appointment of an independent special counsel to investigate any Russian meddling.
“You’ve seen already the extent to which state AGs are working together, are in regular communication about what is happening,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who wrote the first draft of the letter, tells Newsweek. She says she and her counterparts began discussing a course of action immediately after news of the firing on Tuesday. “Many of us had criticized Director Comey in the past, but the president’s decision to fire him in the middle of an ongoing investigation is a threat to our democratic system.”
“I think every single law enforcement officer in the country is probably thinking what the hell’s going on,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who signed the letter, tells Newsweek. “As the top legal officers in the states, and in many cases the top law enforcement officers, it’s something in which we have experience, expertise and deep concern.”
The state officials join many federal lawmakers in calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor. At a Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing on Wednesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein said she planned to work with Senator Richard Blumenthal on legislation that would call for appointing such a prosecutor. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Representative Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote, “Given the taint accompanying the president’s decision, only this step will give the public any modicum of confidence that the investigation will be conducted fairly, rigorously and independent of political influence and interference.”
The terms independent prosecutor and special counsel are typically used interchangably. Under the federal regulation 28 CFR 600.1, the U.S. attorney general (or deputy attorney general, if the first has recused himself or herself from an investigation, as Jeff Sessions has done), can appoint a special counsel “when he or she determines that criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted” and when the entity investigating the matter “would present a conflict of interest for the Department or other extraordinary circumstances,” and that it would be in the public interest to do so. In response to such a request, the attorney general or deputy attorney general might conclude that “the public interest would not be served by removing the investigation from the normal processes of the Department.”
To serve as special counsel, a person must “be a lawyer with a reputation for integrity and impartial decisionmaking, and with appropriate experience to ensure both that the investigation will be conducted ably, expeditiously and thoroughly,” according to the regulation. The investigation must also follow Justice Department policies. The special counsel must be a person from outside the federal government. The identity of the person would remain confidential.
Such a prosecutor would still have to answer to the Justice Department, and above that agency, to Trump. In 1973, President Richard Nixon instructed his Justice Department to fire a special prosecutor who was looking into the Watergate scandal. In what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned instead of carrying out the order. People have already compared Trump’s firing of Comey to that 1973 event. “It really does bring back the very, very disturbing memories of the Watergate crisis,” says Frosh, the Maryland attorney general.
Since Trump took office, state attorneys general have also coordinated to release a statement opposing the executive order suspending travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries and halting the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
Attorneys general “are on the front lines when it comes to defending the rule of law and their constituents’ basic rights—whether it’s this letter on the Comey firing, or the lawsuits against the immigration ban” or action around other issues, Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who signed the letter, said by email.
The signatories of the letter are from California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.
Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, says, “What this is about is ensuring and restoring public trust.”