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 TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her 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 RubioNikki Haley: New York Times ‘knew the facts’ about curtains and still released story March For Our Lives founder leaves group, says he regrets trying to 'embarrass' Rubio Rubio unloads on Turkish chef for 'feasting' Venezuela's Maduro: 'I got pissed' MORE (R-Fla.) was swarmed by reporters after he walked out of a lightly attended hearing on nominations.

“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 ManafortDem warns Trump: 'Obstruction of justice' to fire Rosenstein Ex-White House official revises statement to Mueller after Flynn guilty plea: report Former White House lawyer sought to pay Manafort, Gates legal fees: 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 MarkeyOvernight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes Dems introduce bill to ban low-yield nukes Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report 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 MurphyWant to improve health care? Get Americans off of their couches Situation in Yemen should lead us to return to a constitutional foreign policy Overnight Defense: Biden honors McCain at Phoenix memorial service | US considers sending captured ISIS fighters to Gitmo and Iraq | Senators press Trump on ending Yemen civil war 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 CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters 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 RoundsOn The Money: Treasury rules target blue-state workarounds to tax law | Senate approves sweeping defense, domestic spending bill | US imposes B in tariffs on Chinese goods | Panel narrowly approves consumer bureau pick Senate panel narrowly approves Trump consumer bureau pick GOP sen: Sessions is ‘the right man for the job’ 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 GrassleySenate panel reaches tentative deal for Kavanaugh accuser to testify Thursday Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Aide for GOP involved in Kavanaugh nomination resigns after past sexual harassment allegation surfaces 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 ThuneGoogle says it continues to allow apps to access Gmail user data Fight looms over national privacy law Want to improve health care? Get Americans off of their couches 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 Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe 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 FlakeGrassley panel scraps Kavanaugh hearing, warns committee will vote without deal Coulter mocks Kavanaugh accuser: She'll only testify 'from a ski lift' Poll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it 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 CollinsKavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? Kavanaugh fight roils an already ugly political climate 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 GrahamSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' 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 JohnsonKavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow House panel advances DHS cyber vulnerabilities bills MORE (R-Wis.) deflected questions about Cohen altogether, saying, “I’ll let the Justice Department handle that.”

Jordain Carney contributed.