Comey fallout weighs on the GOP

Republicans are trying to figure out a way past swirling questions about ties between the Trump administration and the Russian government, with GOP strategists calling the investigation and surrounding controversies a public relations nightmare that has dragged on for too long.

Former FBI Director James Comey did not inflict any deadly blows against President Trump when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, Republicans believe, but they’re concerned there will be more damaging revelations in the weeks ahead.

One worrisome prospect Comey’s testimony raised for Republicans is that there may be additional damaging revelations about Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller Watergate's John Dean: White House counsel is 'doing right' by cooperating with Mueller MORE.

Comey testified that the FBI was “aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting” that would have made it impossible for Sessions to oversee any Russia-related investigation.

It’s not clear whether he was only referring to Sessions’s failure to disclose two meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak or something that may come to light later.

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Another potential headache for Republican lawmakers is that Trump himself continues to keep the story alive.

Trump’s bitter fighting with the media over Russia and his dismissal of Comey has fueled a story that even the president’s legislative director, Marc Short, acknowledged this past week was detracting from the president’s agenda.

But one senior GOP aide said that lawmakers aren’t holding out much hope of changing Trump’s Twitter habit, despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Sen. Warner to introduce amendment limiting Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s (R-Ky.) publicly expressed hopes that there be “less drama” from the White House.

The aide quipped that getting Trump to tweet less is like “tilting at windmills.”

Republican lawmakers are under increasing pressure as, four months into Trump’s first term, they cannot point to any major accomplishments besides conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch's confirmation to the Supreme Court. Instead, Trump’s political problems have distracted from the agenda.

Republicans have publicly downplayed Comey’s testimony, but privately they’re nervous that they’re burning through the legislative calendar while remaining deadlocked over healthcare reform. Meanwhile, unfinished work on tax reform, infrastructure investment and the budget piles up behind it.

The biggest frustration for many Republican lawmakers is that Trump has helped keep the controversy in the headlines by picking fights with the media on Twitter instead of keeping the focus on his own agenda or simply staying quiet at key moments.

“At minimum, it is an unforced PR nightmare that’s gone on for far too long, and at maximum it could be something approaching a scandal,” said one Senate GOP strategist.

“The story doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Whether or not there’s something there, it’s been a huge drag on the last couple of months and I hope they figure out to stop it soon,” he added.

GOP lawmakers and aides say that continuing to pick a fight with Comey is not smart.

“Comey was very compelling. People talked about how credible he seemed,” said the strategist.

Nevertheless, Trump couldn’t resist slamming the former FBI director Friday morning.

“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication … and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump tweeted, referring to Comey’s admission that he shared a memo summarizing his interactions with the president with a Columbia Law School professor to give to the media.

The emerging consensus among GOP lawmakers, aides and strategists is that the best way for the party to get past the turbulence is for Republicans to pledge to get to the bottom of allegations of collusion with Russia and in the meantime to get to work on passing Trump’s agenda.

“It’s real simple: Go do something. If you don’t have the votes to repeal ObamaCare in the Senate, then get a budget passed, do tax reform. Get some stuff done,” said Chip Saltsman, a Republican strategist.

“The worst thing they can do is get absolutely nothing done and go out for August recess,” he added.

Republican senators are beginning to come around to the same view.

McConnell is pushing for a vote on ObamaCare repeal-and-replace legislation before the August recess. Lawmakers say it would be wise to decide what to do on healthcare reform soon and move on to tax reform.

“We’re trying to work and keep our noses to the grindstone to rescue the American people from ever-imploding ObamaCare,” said a Senate GOP aide. “There’s the backdrop of the cacophony of the Comey hearing, and we’re trying to work through various pieces of our agenda.”

Former Rep. Matt SalmonMatthew (Matt) James SalmonArizona GOP tinkers with election rules with an eye on McCain's seat Quiet jockeying for McCain seat angers Republicans McSally tells GOP colleagues she'll run for Arizona Senate MORE (R-Ariz.), who retired from Congress at the beginning of this year, said, “I think it’s incredibly important that they legislate.”

“If they go to the status quo of appropriating by continuing resolution or omnibus, it’s going to be a big strike against them,” he added.

Salmon warned GOP senators not to drag out the healthcare debate for too much longer.

“The longer it goes, the less chance that something’s actually going to happen, so I think time is of the essence,” he said.

GOP lawmakers and strategists say the best thing their party can do about allegations of senior Trump advisors colluding with the Russian government to impact the election is to let Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of the case, handle it.

They hope now that Comey has given Congress a full accounting of his involvement in the investigation and has had the chance to settle the score with Trump for firing him, that damaging leaks from Comey’s inner circle and Justice Department staff will die down.

Republicans can distance themselves from a potential scandal by making their own effort to dig up facts, which Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTop Republican: Senate panel not ready to wrap up Russia probe White House weighs clawing back State, foreign aid funding Conway blasts Brennan: 'Why is he screaming' about losing his clearance 'on a lower-rated cable network?' MORE (R-N.C.) is in charge of as head of the main congressional investigation.

“On the Republican side, it’s going to require that we show the same interest in getting to the bottom of it as we did with some of the Obama scandals,” Salmon said. “The special prosecutor is going to do what he’s going to do and they just need to wait until he concludes and let him do his job and be supportive.”

In response to a question from Burr, Comey told the Intelligence Committee Thursday that it would be possible for both the Senate and special prosecutors to investigate simultaneously without hurting either investigation.

The Senate GOP aide said Republican senators are doing just that.

“There is a very serious and legitimate question about Russia’s interference in the election. I think one point of pride for the United States Senate is how impressive the Senate Intelligence Committee has been on a bipartisan basis,” the aide said.