GOP on heels after Cohen plea, Manafort conviction

GOP on heels after Cohen plea, Manafort conviction

Republican lawmakers found themselves scrambling for answers a day after President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE’s former lawyer accused the president of criminal conduct and his former campaign chairman was convicted on eight felony counts.

The two legal dramas have been brewing for months, but Tuesday’s developments nonetheless left the GOP at a loss for how to respond.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump jumps into 2020 race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump jumps into 2020 race GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (R-Fla.) was swarmed by reporters after he walked out of a lightly attended hearing on nominations.

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“I’m glad I wore makeup,” he quipped as television cameras boxed him in outside the committee room.

Barraged with questions about whether Trump committed a crime and would be subject to impeachment, Rubio said he wanted to leave questions about the president violated the law to the courts.

“That is in the hands of a prosecutor, that is working its way through courts. They will handle that and the prosecutor’s office will handle that,” he said.

But some legal experts argue that Justice Department guidelines don’t allow it to bring an indictment against a sitting president, which would put the matter in Congress’s lap.

Former Trump lawyer and self-proclaimed “fixer” Michael Cohen rocked the political landscape Tuesday when he told a judge in Manhattan that he arranged hush-money payments to two women during the 2016 presidential campaign at the direction of Trump.

Adding to the maelstrom, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFBI, warned early and often that Manafort file might be fake, used it anyway FBI, warned early and often that Manafort file might be fake, used it anyway Justice Department intervenes, keeps Manafort from being sent to Rikers Island: report MORE, Trump’s former campaign chief, now faces the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence after a jury convicted him of tax and banking fraud.

Republicans said they don’t want to speculate on what comes next if more evidence emerges that Trump broke the law.

“It’s premature to talk about it at this stage because there’s been no determination made by any court or even any prosecutor,” Rubio said.

Congressional Republicans spent much of the day darting into elevators or meeting rooms and speed walking past reporters to minimize their time spent facing uncomfortable questions.

Democrats, by contrast, where happy to hold fast in front of cameras and bludgeon the president over his legal woes.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries Hillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record MORE (D-Mass.) warned that Trump would trigger a shutdown of government if he tried to pardon Cohen or Manafort, who the president praised as a “brave man” shortly after the guilty verdict was announced.

“If the president tries to pardon these people, there will be a constitutional crisis in our country,” he said. “That looks like a shutdown of the United States House of Representatives and Senate for all other business.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Chris Murphy may oppose bipartisan health bill unless it addresses ObamaCare 'sabotage' MORE (D-Conn.) declared the Trump administration “the most corrupt administration in the history of the country.”

Even the president’s strongest critics in the Senate GOP conference were unsure of how to respond to the recent news.

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.), who’s retiring at the end of this term, declined to say whether Trump committed a crime if he indeed directed Cohen to pay hush money to former paramours.

“I’m just an old business guy. I don’t know about legal issues much,” Corker said. “I think the system will work out.”

While Republicans were left befuddled by questions about whether Trump broke the law or what should happen next, one thing was clear: All talk about their legislative agenda and accomplishments — their fall campaign message — was blown out of the water.

GOP lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday the ongoing legal distraction would blunt their message on the economic effect of tax cuts and deregulation.

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices House panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa MORE (R-S.D.) lamented, “It’s always difficult to get the message out that you want to get out when there are other issues that are taking front and center.”

“Let’s face it, this is taking front and center,” he added, referring to the Cohen and Manafort developments. “All the major news organizations are talking about it.”

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Grassley announces opposition to key Trump proposal to lower drug prices MORE (R-Iowa) urged the president via Twitter to read an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Gerald Seib explaining how Trump often steps on his own good news.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account Hillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account New push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road MORE (S.D.), the third-ranking GOP leader, said the escalating legal drama is “definitely a fairly big sideshow.”

“Until it plays out and we know what the conclusions are that the investigation draws, I think we have to let it play out,” he added.

Thune declined to say whether Congress needs to investigate Cohen’s allegation that Trump violated campaign finance law, arguing that lawmakers need to hear more from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE before proceeding.

At the same time, things have gotten so unpredictable since Trump took the oath of office that nothing really surprises Republican lawmakers anymore.

“I’ve been here 11-and-a-half years, I’ve never seen anything close to what I’ve seen over the last year and a half — not even close — and it’s not just a surprise to me what’s happening,” Corker said.

Other GOP lawmakers were dogged by reporters asking whether Trump should be impeached if Cohen’s claims are proven true.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeDemocrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Ariz.), another regular Trump critic who’s retiring in early January, said he didn’t want to touch that hot potato, at least not yet.

“I’m not going to suggest anything other than this is obviously serious,” he said.

Asked if the allegation constituted a crime by the president, Flake demurred, “I'm not a lawyer.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community Senate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (R-Maine) on the subject of impeachment said, “It’s far too early to be talking about anything like that.”

She also argued that articles of impeachment begin in the House, and that questions about the process should begin there.

“To me, the conviction yesterday of Michael Cohen and his assertions are all the more reason we need the special counsel to conclude his investigation and be given the time to conclude it,” she said.

Other Republicans said they wanted to learn more of Cohen’s allegations and questioned his credibility.

Asked if he believed Cohen, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSecond ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Meghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the 'sacrificial Republican' on 'The View' MORE (R-S.C.) said, “I have no idea.”

“Seldom do people plead guilty and lie about [it], but I don’t know,” he added.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocrats make U-turn on calling border a 'manufactured crisis' Democrats make U-turn on calling border a 'manufactured crisis' GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (R-Wis.) deflected questions about Cohen altogether, saying, “I’ll let the Justice Department handle that.”

Jordain Carney contributed.