J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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

Top Republicans are wary of undermining the president—and his legislative agenda.

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.