Anxiety and dismay spread throughout the ranks of Capitol Hill Republicans on Wednesday as lawmakers reckoned with the fallout from the James Comey scandal and the damage it could cause to President Donald Trump and their own agenda.
Republicans quickly split into factions — from defending Trump and blaming the media on one end, to calling for a special prosecutor and even raising the specter of impeachment on the other — as they responded to news that Trump allegedly pressured the former FBI director to drop the agency’s investigation of Trump’s ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Many others demanded that Comey testify and turn over private memos documenting his conversations with Trump.
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Privately, many Republicans are plainly distressed and even panicked over what a prolonged scandal could mean for their agenda and grip on power. Some wonder if Trump will still be president next year, while others are frustrated that the White House hasn’t done more damage control. Chatter has begun about what a President Mike Pence might look like.
“Things are tough now, we all know that,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of the mood on Capitol Hill. “What do you think this is, a joy ride?”
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and party leaders appear mostly to be playing for time, and trying to provide political cover for their rank-and-file. Ryan said he would reserve judgment until the facts are out, but that Congress should seek out those facts. He’s backing House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s effort to have Comey appear before his panel, one of at least three committees seeking to hear directly from the ex-FBI director. Chaffetz called a May 24 hearing with Comey, although the Oversight chairman hasn’t yet connected with him.
Other Republicans — including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) – are part of a growing list of Republicans joining Democrats in calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor or independent commission to investigate the Trump-Comey interactions, as well as the alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Wednesday that “it may be that we need to look” to the independent avenues to investigate the matter.
Trump backers — a small but vocal group — deny the president did anything wrong. They blame the media, the “deep state” and Democrats for the president’s problems.
And least three House Republicans — Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), and Walter Jones (N.C.) — have warned that the allegations against Trump, if true, could constitute obstruction of justice and an impeachable offense. Sen. John McCain compared Trump’s situation to Watergate.
"I think it could be" impeachable, Jones told POLITICO. "We have to see where the evidence goes. If the evidence proves — and there has to be a proof — that there is reason for a discussion on impeachment, then it needs to happen… If we don’t protect the truth and defend the truth, then there’s no hope…. This has probably been the four months that I have felt like my nation is upside down."
Multiple Republicans said there’s been a palpable mood change inside the GOP, as lawmakers worry that a Trump implosion could wreck their own careers.
“If what the [New York Times] reported is true, Pence is probably rehearsing,” said one House Republican. “It’s just like Nixon. From the standpoint that it’s never the underlying issue, it is always the cover-up. It’s this denial. This whole notion that if he did tell Comey to stop the investigation and then later fires Comey, it’s hard not to make a practical case of obstruction.”
During a closed-door conference House GOP meeting on Wednesday, Ryan tried to contain the political fallout by urging members to avoid a rush to judgment. Ryan told reporters after the session that there are many “unanswered questions,” and that he won’t make up his own mind based on “speculation and innuendo."
"We need the facts," Ryan said. "It is obvious that there are some people who want to harm the president. But we have an obligation to carry out our oversight regardless of which party is in the White House."
Many Republicans took his advice, either dodging questions from reporters or trying to downplay the current impact of the scandal in their public comments.
“There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of reporting going on,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Arik.). “We need the facts. That was the message and I think it’s a reasonable and prudent message from leadership. There is a tendency to respond to conjecture and give opinions on ‘what if.’ And I’m not sure that’s really constructive.”
Added Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas: “I’m not going to reach a conclusion based on news stories. We need to conduct our oversight and investigation and satisfy ourselves as to what the facts are.”
At the same time, though, a growing chorus of congressional Republicans is calling for Comey to testify before Congress about his interactions with Trump — including whether Trump tried to obstruct the criminal probe of Flynn’s connections with Russia.
Chaffetz has asked the FBI to turn over any records it has on the Trump-Comey interactions. Chaffetz also wants Comey to appear before his panel and said he will subpoena Comey if necessary.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is also asking the FBI and White House to turn over any documents they have on Trump and Comey.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview that if Comey doesn’t hand over his notes on his conversations with Trump, they should be subpoenaed.
"We need to see the memo," Rubio said. "We need to have Comey come in and testify."
More Republicans also appeared open to appointing a special prosecutor or independent commission to investigate the ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
“I think it’s time that we look at the idea of an independent commission or special prosecutor. I’m not sure the best venue," Kinzinger told CNN. "But I think it’s time that we do whatever is necessary that when this is over, we give people confidence that either way, either way it goes, justice has been served."
Still, a number of Republicans are waiving off allegations that Trump tried to stop the FBI’s Flynn probe then fired Comey over the issue. His most ardent defenders in the party claim it’s all hearsay and there’s proof yet that Trump did anything improper.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior GOP senator, said he believes the entire narrative is “overblown” and he wants to put the Comey memos story “to bed.” He does not believe that Comey should be hauled in front of Congress for public testimony.
“It’s up to them to determine how they want to do it. I never impose,” Hatch said of the White House in an interview. Asked if he believed Comey should testify, Hatch broke with some of his colleagues: “Not particularly. I think it’s overblown."
"It’s hearsay so far," added Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.). "For all I know, nobody’s seen the memo… Also it’s Comey writing a memo from a conversation, so it’s a lot of hearsay.”
Loudermilk also argued that there’s “nothing illegal about” anything that’s been reported. Asked if it constitutes obstruction of justice he said: “No…. That’s not political pressure being put on someone. That’s an opinion being expressed."