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 TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration 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: Trump escalates fight with NY Times The Hill's Morning Report - Can Bernie recapture 2016 magic? Venezuela puts spotlight on Rubio 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 ManafortJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Five things to know about Trump confidant Tom Barrack Trump has publicly criticized Russia probe more than 1,100 times: NY Times 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 MarkeyGabbard cites ‘concerns’ about ‘vagueness’ of Green New Deal Durbin after reading Green New Deal: 'What in the heck is this?' Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal 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 MurphyCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support House passes bill to end US support for Saudi war in Yemen This week: Border deal remains elusive as shutdown looms 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 CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy 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 RoundsGOP senator: Trump thinks funding deal is 'thin gruel' Lawmakers put Pentagon's cyber in their sights Endorsing Trump isn’t the easiest decision for some Republicans 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 — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Drug pricing fight centers on insulin | Florida governor working with Trump to import cheaper drugs | Dems blast proposed ObamaCare changes Drug pricing fight centers on insulin On The Money: Smaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive | Dems question IRS on new tax forms | Warren rolls out universal child care proposal | Illinois governor signs bill for minimum wage 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 ThunePolls: Hiking estate tax less popular than taxing mega wealth, income Will Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall 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 FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger 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 CollinsTexas GOP rep opposes Trump’s use of national emergency to get border wall GOP Sen. Collins says she'll back resolution to block Trump's emergency declaration Talk grows that Trump will fire Dan Coats 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 GrahamFBI’s top lawyer believed Hillary Clinton should face charges, but was talked out of it Overnight Defense: Graham clashed with Pentagon chief over Syria | Talk grows that Trump will fire Coats | Coast Guard officer accused of domestic terrorism plot Graham cursed at acting DOD chief, declaring himself his 'adversary' 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 JohnsonWhite House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration GOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority GOP senator voices concern about Trump order, hasn't decided whether he'll back it MORE (R-Wis.) deflected questions about Cohen altogether, saying, “I’ll let the Justice Department handle that.”

Jordain Carney contributed.