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?”