Even before the latest report about President Trump exploded across Washington on Tuesday, congressional Republicans were troubled.
When the president abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, the timing was “troubling,” multiple Republican lawmakers agreed. So, too, was the president’s tweet threatening to reveal “tapes” of his conversations with Comey. Ditto the president’s reported disclosure of highly classified intelligence to Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting.
If Republican lawmakers had seemingly settled on a rote response to Trump’s outrage du jour, however, on Tuesday they faced a new shock: a New York Times report detailing an alleged exchange in which Trump urged Comey to close a federal investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump said, according to a memo written by Comey and obtained by the Times.
The story, denied in a statement by the White House, raises further concerns that the president used the power of his office to curtail the FBI’s activities.
“I keep using ‘troubling,’ but troubling is an understatement,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters.
More Republicans now seem to agree. As the news rippled across Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the mood among GOP lawmakers was one of “concern,” said Sen. John McCain. At a dinner later Tuesday where he received an award, McCain said Trump’s scandals are “reaching the point where it’s of Watergate size and scale,” according to reports.
A shift among Republicans was immediately visible. Whereas GOP lawmakers had previously pressed the White House to provide answers and explain fresh scandals, party lawmakers are now beginning to take action themselves. In a letter Tuesday to Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz requested “all memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the president.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, told reporters that he is inviting Comey to testify publicly before the Senate judiciary subcommittee that Graham chairs. “I don’t want to read a memo,” Graham said. “I want to hear from him.” Comey previously turned down a Senate Intelligence Committee invitation for a classified briefing this week.
The sharp turn by Republicans suggested “they are increasingly shaken,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. “How could they not be?”
In recent weeks, regular chaos emanating from the White House has left Republican lawmakers in a permanent defensive crouch. The crush of new developments, often without warning, has felt like “drinking from a fire hydrant at times,” Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, told CNN this week.
“Every day is an adventure,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican.
On Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to nudge the administration. “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda,” McConnell told Bloomberg News.
“Every day they need to call in political ServPro to vacuum and clean the damage that’s occurring,” lamented one Republican strategist who has worked with the administration.
Indeed, during the strategist’s interview with RealClearPolitics Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times published its latest story, once again sending GOP lawmakers scrambling to respond and explain.
As the news broke, House Republicans were just returning to Washington following a weeklong recess. When they had adjourned, they had been fresh from a Rose Garden celebration with the president to mark House passage of a health care reform measure. Over the next week, however, they watched from afar as Trump fired Comey, threatened to reveal “tapes” of their conversations, and faced questions over his reported disclosure of classified information to Russian officials.
By Tuesday evening, in light of the latest Times report, some House Republicans were no longer merely troubled. Rep. Mark Sanford, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said the actions ascribed to the president “would be more than deeply troubling” if true. King, although skeptical of the Times’ reporting, said the president’s actions “would have been a crime, the way it’s being reported.”
The reported contents of Comey’s memo opened a “new chapter of scandal and controversy in this country,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who hails from a swing district. Curbelo is one of a few Republicans who have urged the creation of a select committee to investigate possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign; on Tuesday evening, he predicted the idea would gain traction.
“I think you’ll see more soon,” Curbelo said.
If some Republicans have reached a turning point, however, plenty of party lawmakers are staying the course — waving off calls for a special prosecutor or select commission and downplaying recent news reports.
As Sen. James Risch discussed with reporters some of the recent Trump controversies, he turned to a reporter who wore a serious look. “Oh, get that look off your face,” joked Risch, an Idaho Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee. “Be happy. He’s not so bad!”
King suggested that the White House, if anything, “need[s] to get tougher in cracking down on leaks” that have fueled recent damaging stories. Graham agreed; and even as he invited Comey to testify, the South Carolina senator suggested the former FBI director should have disclosed his concerns if something had truly been amiss.
“If the president asked the FBI director to do something inappropriate, the FBI director should have said ‘no’ and quit,” Graham said. “If you’re asked to do something wrong, you need to do more than write a memo to cover your ass.”
Were any monumental Republican shift against Trump to transpire, the leading indicator would likely be Trump’s approval rating among Republican voters. So far, that measure has remained solid — with 84 percent Republican approval in the most recent Gallup measure, even as the president’s overall approval has plummeted.
The intensity of that support might be gradually eroding, however. During the House’s weeklong recess, Sanford found that the controversy surrounding Trump ”is very much hot and bright, and of great concern with regard to the public I talk to back home,” even in his conservative district.
And as more Republicans begin to face such political pressure, Sanford mused, merely expressing worry might not cut it.
“You get a lot of comments where people say, ‘I hear you that you’re concerned — now what are you going to do about it?’” Sanford said. “And I think that’s going to increasingly be the question asked of Republicans.”
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