Republicans consumed by Trump-Comey saga

Republicans consumed by Trump-Comey saga
© Greg Nash

The firestorm engulfing the White House consumed Capitol Hill on Wednesday as the first Republicans publicly suggested that President Trump could be at risk of impeachment.

That development came as a handful of GOP lawmakers joined the calls for a special prosecutor or independent commission to investigate whether the Trump campaign had anything to do with Russia’s attempt to sway the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump tried to halt the FBI investigation into the matter.

By the end of the day Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will serve as a special counsel to oversee the agency’s investigation of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election. 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said a special counsel “is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.”

Both the House Oversight and Senate Intelligence committees on Wednesday also called on James Comey, the former FBI director fired by Trump last week, to testify before Congress and hand over memos about his meetings with the president.

Tempers on Capitol Hill were running hot as reporters and TV cameras swarmed GOP lawmakers at the Capitol Hill Club and near the Senate subway, causing Senate staff to warn news outlets that they may restrict access due to “large and aggressive” press groups. A veteran reporter and a Hill staffer got into a shouting match over access as reporters looked on.

The flurry of activity came on the first full day after The New York Times’s bombshell report that Trump urged Comey to halt his agency’s probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn during a February Oval Office meeting that Comey reportedly documented in a memo.

When asked by The Hill if the allegations in the Comey memo could be grounds for impeachment if true, Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashAmash fires back at Trump over Sanford primary tweet Trump rips GOP's Sanford on primary day: 'He's better off in Argentina' Overnight Defense: Trump, Kim poised for historic summit | Trump blasts 'haters and losers' hours before meeting | Defense bill to include ZTE penalties | Lawmakers sound alarm over 'catastrophic' Yemen offensive MORE (R-Mich.) said yes. “But everybody gets a fair trial in this country,” he added.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) has compared the allegations to the obstruction of justice cases that led to impeachment proceedings for former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton hits Trump administration policy separating immigrant families in Father's Day tweet Trump's strategy for North Korea and beyond James Comey's higher disloyalty to America MORE. “Obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense,” Curbelo said in an interview Wednesday.

And Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) told The Hill, “I think legal scholars will probably start giving the justification of whether the House should or should not move forward on impeachment.”

The three GOP lawmakers are all longtime Trump critics who’ve expressed alarm over his behavior during the 2016 campaign and his time so far in office.

Yet it’s clear that Republicans as a whole are disturbed by the latest Trump controversy — just days after he ousted Comey and The Washington Post reported he shared highly classified information with Russian officials — and are suggesting the president may have gone too far.

Ahead of the Justice Department’s announcement of a special counsel, centrist Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said on CNN Wednesday morning that he was now open to appointing a special prosecutor or creating an independent commission to investigate Russia’s role in the election.

House Democrats initiated a procedure on Wednesday known as a “discharge petition” to try to force a vote on legislation to establish an independent commission. Jones, who endorsed the original bill, signed on to the long-shot effort.

“I think I understand the politics of the hesitation by the leadership. I understand that,” Jones said. “But if this continues to move forward ... I think they would make a mistake if they don’t become more proactive.”

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson urged GOP leaders to get on board with the idea.

“I don’t think the [Intelligence] Committee is going to do their job,” Simpson said, warning that the two parties could arrive at conflicting conclusions. “That’s why you need somebody independent. We’re too involved, frankly.”

Still, those voices calling for more congressional action are in the minority. The vast majority of House and Senate GOP lawmakers said they remain comfortable with the existing probes by the House and Senate Intelligence committees, as well as the ongoing FBI probe.

In the end, the Justice Department helped take some pressure off Republicans on Capitol Hill by announcing Mueller’s appointment.

But before the announcement, GOP lawmakers were wary of upping investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.

“I have confidence in the two Intelligence committees and the hardworking professionals in the FBI,” said Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), who is expected to have a tough race in 2018 and voted against the House GOP’s healthcare bill. “This is a serious matter, and I want Director Comey to be able to come before the Congress as soon as possible, preferably in an open hearing, because we need to get to the bottom of this.”

Even Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeDHS secretary defends Trump administration's migrant policies White House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies GOP senators push for clarification on migrant family separations MORE (R-Ariz.), a vocal Trump critic facing reelection next year, said he wasn’t ready to call for an independent prosecutor or commission. “I’m not there,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyPruitt’s new problem with the GOP: Ethanol Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Dems see midterm advantage in new ObamaCare fight Senate Judiciary urges response to sexual harassment in federal courts MORE (R-Iowa) has demanded that the FBI turn over all of Comey’s memos about Trump but said chatter about impeachment across the Capitol is premature.

“I usually trust people until I find out they’re liars,” Grassley told reporters. Impeachment “is something that I haven’t seen any evidence [for] yet, but if there were evidence, a violation of law, then that’s very serious.”

Addressing reporters this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress had a good couple of weeks — now let's keep it going McCarthy: 'The Mueller investigation has got to stop' McConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWhite House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies John Legend slams Paul Ryan for Father's Day tweet, demands end to family separation Trump faces Father’s Day pleas to end separations of migrant families MORE (R-Wis.) rebuffed calls within their party for more congressional action, saying they both have absolute confidence in Trump and the existing Hill investigations.

Ryan cautioned against “rushing to judgment” amid swirling allegations about the president and questioned why Comey didn’t say something when Trump allegedly tried to quash the FBI probe.

“We need the facts. It is obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president and that means before rushing to judgment we get all the pertinent information,” Ryan told reporters at Republican National Committee headquarters. “The Oversight and Government Reform Committee has appropriately requested this memo and I’m sure we’re going to want to hear from Mr. Comey about why, if this happened as he allegedly describes, why didn’t he take action at the time.”

“Our job is to be responsible, sober and focused only on gathering the facts,” he continued. “That is what Congress does in conducting oversight of the executive branch.”

Ryan delivered that same message earlier in the morning during a closed-door meeting with his rank-and-file members. But some Republicans emerging from that gathering complained that leadership wasn’t doing enough to develop a singular party message on how to respond to the constant drip of negative news stories related to Russia.

That lack of coordination has caused some Republicans to “go rogue.”

“A lot of them are saying, ‘Let’s wait and see, let’s work the process,’ ” said one GOP lawmaker frustrated with leadership. “But some members can’t wait. They’ve got to go out there and say something. They will do what they think is right and that’s go rogue.” 

Jordain Carney contributed.