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As Mueller Takes Over Trump Probe, GOP Leaders Hold Their Fire

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Rep. Mike Simpson was a dent­al stu­dent in the early 1970s when Pres­id­ent Nix­on’s ad­min­is­tra­tion spiraled in­to chaos, so he can un­der­stand twice over why get­ting Re­pub­lic­ans to com­ment on re­ports of im­pro­pri­ety by Pres­id­ent Trump can be like pulling teeth.

“Politi­cians like me were stand­ing around say­ing, ‘Hey, Nix­on’s OK; he didn’t do any­thing,’” Simpson said of the Wa­ter­gate era. “Then the next day something else hap­pens and pretty soon you’ve got an ava­lanche of stuff.”

Be­fore Wed­nes­day’s De­part­ment of Justice an­nounce­ment that former FBI Dir­ect­or Robert Mueller had been named spe­cial coun­sel to handle the in­vest­ig­a­tion of Trump’s al­leged ties to Rus­sia, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill had re­acted meekly to the pre­vi­ous bomb­shell re­port—that Trump had asked then-FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey to stand down on in­vest­ig­at­ing former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Mi­chael Flynn, be­fore fir­ing Comey weeks later.

Dis­trust­ful of the press, dis­missive of Demo­crats’ calls, and de­pend­ent upon Trump to ac­com­plish their prom­ises to re­place Obama­care and re­form the tax code, Re­pub­lic­ans hope to avoid tak­ing ac­tions that might un­der­mine their pres­id­ent and party. Wheth­er the ap­point­ment of Mueller deep­ens the Hill GOP’s prob­lems or al­le­vi­ates them, at least tem­por­ar­ily, isn’t yet clear.

“Mueller is a great se­lec­tion. Im­pec­cable cre­den­tials. Should be widely ac­cep­ted,” House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Chair­man Jason Chaf­fetz tweeted.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell offered a more neut­ral com­ment, say­ing the move “con­firms that the in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to Rus­si­an in­ter­ven­tion in­to our elec­tion will con­tin­ue, as stated last week by act­ing FBI Dir­ect­or An­drew Mc­Cabe. The Sen­ate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence will also con­tin­ue its in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to this mat­ter.” And House Speak­er Paul Ry­an said he “wel­come[d]” Mueller’s ap­point­ment and that “the im­port­ant on­go­ing bi­par­tis­an in­vest­ig­a­tion in the House will also con­tin­ue.”

Demo­crats, for their part, wel­comed the move. “I now have sig­ni­fic­antly great­er con­fid­ence that the in­vest­ig­a­tion will fol­low the facts, wherever they lead,” Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer said, ac­cord­ing to a tweet from his spokes­man. House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said an “in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sion” was also ne­ces­sary. “A spe­cial pro­sec­utor is the first step, but it can­not be the last,” she said.

Ahead of the Mueller news, Mc­Con­nell fo­cused his Wed­nes­day morn­ing speech on tax re­form, and later told The Wall Street Journ­al that Comey should ex­plain him­self to the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee in a pub­lic set­ting as part of its on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion. Ry­an, mean­while, told his mem­bers that over­sight takes time and they should be pa­tient in­stead of leap­ing to judg­ment, be­fore telling re­port­ers he still has full con­fid­ence in Trump.

Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers want to “fig­ure out what the hell is go­ing on,” as Simpson put it, be­fore they con­demn their pres­id­ent.

“You don’t want to jump out and say, ‘Yeah, that’s an im­peach­able of­fense,’ or something like that when you really don’t know what’s go­ing on,” Simpson ad­ded.

Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers and aides said that po­s­i­tion is un­der­stand­able giv­en the lack of sure­fire evid­ence so far that Trump did any­thing un­con­sti­tu­tion­al that would jus­ti­fy im­peach­ment.

What Re­pub­lic­ans have be­fore them, in­stead, is me­dia re­ports. A May 10 Quin­nipi­ac poll found that 89 per­cent of re­spond­ent Re­pub­lic­ans dis­ap­prove of the way the me­dia has covered Trump and 72 per­cent trust Trump more than the news me­dia to tell them the truth about im­port­ant is­sues.

That is among the reas­ons why Re­pub­lic­ans are step­ping lightly when asked to com­ment on po­ten­tially dam­aging ma­ter­i­al that was leaked to the press but has not yet been in­de­pend­ently con­firmed by Con­gress: Their con­stitu­ents don’t ne­ces­sar­ily be­lieve it.

“I ac­tu­ally like Mi­chael Schmidt; he does good work,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, a mem­ber of both the House Over­sight and In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees, name-drop­ping the New York Times re­port­er who broke the news (and also broke the story of Hil­lary Clin­ton us­ing a per­son­al email ac­count). “But you’ve got to see the memos. You’ve got to talk to Comey. You can’t ex­am­ine or cross-ex­am­ine an art­icle.”

Re­pub­lic­ans off Cap­it­ol Hill ac­know­ledge the po­ten­tial sever­ity of the pres­id­ent’s al­leged ac­tions. At an event sponsored by the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety, Mi­chael Muka­sey said on Wed­nes­day that what Trump re­portedly did would nev­er have happened in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, where he served as at­tor­ney gen­er­al.

“One-word an­swer: No,” said Muka­sey, be­fore be­ing pressed by a mod­er­at­or. “It sug­gests a com­plete un­con­scious­ness of what it is that is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing. That con­ver­sa­tion may be ap­pro­pri­ate to a minor dis­cip­lin­ary mat­ter in a cor­por­a­tion. It’s not ap­pro­pri­ate to a crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tion. The in­ab­il­ity to dis­tin­guish the one from the oth­er, I think, is ex­traordin­ary.”

It’s clear some seni­or of­fi­cials on Cap­it­ol Hill agree. The Times re­port spurred sev­er­al rel­ev­ant com­mit­tees in­to ac­tion on Wed­nes­day in a way they haven’t been fol­low­ing pre­vi­ous re­ports about al­leged wrong­do­ing in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The top Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat on the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee re­ques­ted that Comey brief mem­bers both in pub­lic and private, and that the FBI hand over his notes “re­gard­ing any com­mu­nic­a­tions he may have had with seni­or White House and De­part­ment of Justice of­fi­cials re­lated to in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to Rus­sia’s ef­forts.” The Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee re­ques­ted the memos Comey re­portedly wrote on his in­ter­ac­tions with Trump. Chaf­fetz asked for the same memos and also asked Comey to come be­fore his com­mit­tee next week.

Sen. John Thune, a mem­ber of the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship who helps craft the con­fer­ence’s mes­sage, said he hadn’t heard from the White House on the mat­ter. “I’m not sure there’s that level of or­gan­iz­a­tion,” Thune said, adding that most mem­bers are fig­ur­ing out how to re­spond on their own.

A couple of Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­men—Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Car­los Cur­belo of Flor­ida—did break from the pack, say­ing that the al­leg­a­tions could, if true, prove to be im­peach­able of­fenses, while GOP Rep. Wal­ter Jones of North Car­o­lina signed on to a Demo­crat­ic dis­charge pe­ti­tion to es­tab­lish an in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sion to look in­to the mat­ter.

Sen. John Mc­Cain said the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions are “reach­ing Wa­ter­gate size and scale,” point­ing to one of the greatest polit­ic­al crises in the past 50 years. It’s clear that even though the latest con­tro­versy from the White House hasn’t changed many of their minds, it has deepened Re­pub­lic­ans’ de­pres­sion.

“Things are tough now,” said Mc­Cain. “We all know that. What do you think this is, a joyride?”

Adam Wollner and Jason Plautz contributed to this article.   

Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter. A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.

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