Republicans in Congress are increasingly dispirited over the chaos surrounding Donald Trump, with several saying the nonstop revelations are imperiling their legislative agenda and the top Senate Republican signaling he’d go his own way on some of the president’s top priorities.
Those concerns mounted Tuesday evening after reports that Trump asked his former FBI director, James Comey, to close an investigation into the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Comey wrote a memo about the conversation immediately after it occurred. Democrats said Trump’s request amounted to obstruction of justice while Republicans demanded information from the administration.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’s prepared to block Trump on many of his proposed budget cuts and won’t support major tax cuts that add to the deficit. Nor would he commit to building Trump’s border wall.
The normally taciturn Republican leader let slip some of his frustration with the president, telling Bloomberg News in an interview that he really wants one thing from Trump: “less drama.”
McConnell says could do with less White House drama.
In previous months, Republican lawmakers were more likely to defend Trump — even after he and his administration made comments and policy changes that generated intense criticism. That began to change after Trump fired Comey on May 9 and continued this week with a report Monday that Trump revealed highly classified intelligence to senior Russian officials, followed by the news of the request to drop the Flynn probe.
‘Get Used to It’
“Whenever there’s drama going on over there, it makes it tougher for the agenda here,” Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said Tuesday, before reports of Comey’s memo. “But I suppose it’s going to continue, so I’ll have to get used to it.”
Another Republican senator said he wasn’t aware of anyone directly pressing Trump to change his ways or expressing concerns about the president’s reported disclosure of classified intelligence to senior Russian diplomats. The most GOP lawmakers can do is to try to focus on passing legislation, though the senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said those efforts are weakened with every new Trump disclosure.
Even before reports of the Comey memo, McConnell laid out a GOP agenda that explicitly rejects more and more of Trump’s major priorities. A tax overhaul, McConnell said, must be revenue-neutral. The president has said it would “OK” if a tax overhaul added to the deficit in the short run to stimulate the economy.
McConnell offered an unusually strong rebuff of a budget request coming from a president of his own party. Trump’s priorities “aren’t necessarily ours,” he said, adding the president’s plan to slash the State Department is “highly unlikely.” Trump is expected to unveil his detailed budget request on May 23.
McConnell also said he’s told the administration he wouldn’t support a big infrastructure stimulus package that adds to the deficit either. The forthcoming infrastructure plan must be a “credible, paid-for” proposal, he said. And he wouldn’t commit to fighting for Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.
“We’ll probably have arguments about what’s a wall and what’s security in the course of the discussion about the spending for next year,” he said.
After a protracted period of dormancy, financial markets gave signs of reacting to developments in Washington Tuesday night.
With stock and bond volatility still muted, some investors have looked for a clearer reaction to the political din in currency markets, where the dollar extended a five-day slide as news on Comey’s broke. The U.S. currency now sits at its lowest level since the day of Trump’s shock win, a retracement some blame on perceptions his legislative agenda faces a steeper climb.
Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, who is heading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election, said Tuesday night that members of Congress have to “compartmentalize” amid White House distractions.
Asked how Republicans will still get their work done, Conaway said, “Well, you get up every morning, put your shoes on and go to work.”
“I mean yes, we can walk, chew gum, whistle, all kinds of good stuff at the same time,” he added
On the House side, GOP leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have been noticeably quiet about Trump, offering routine defenses in the wake of each controversy.
But some rank-and-file members are starting to express impatience with Trump. After the Comey memo revelation, GOP Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida said that he wants Congress to create a select committee that would solely focused on Trump and the Russia allegations.
“The administration also needs to be held accountable,” he told reporters Tuesday evening.
Republican Representative Barbara Comstock, whose district is home to large numbers of FBI and CIA employees, said Trump’s disclosure of classified intelligence to the Russians is “highly troubling.”
“We need to have immediate classified briefings on what occurred at this meeting so that Congress can at least know as much as Russian leaders,” she said in a statement.
California Republican Steve Knight also said in a statement that he’s joining “many of my colleagues in supporting the assignment of a special prosecutor to take over the ongoing FBI investigation” into Russia’s activities and any possible Trump links.
Waiting for Details
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina sounded a note of frustration on Tuesday, saying he was waiting for someone who participated in the Oval Office meeting with the Russian envoys to brief him on the details.
“I hopefully can cover this in a telephone conversation versus a transcript, but I’ll go that route if I need to,” said Burr, who is leading the panel’s investigation into Russia’s hacking efforts during the 2016 election, as well into alleged ties between Trump associates and Russia.
Flake said the Trump administration’s shifting explanations for each controversy, including the reported intelligence disclosures to Russia, increase lawmakers’ concerns.
“We’ve only heard a couple of iterations from the White House so far,” Flake said Tuesday, sounding exasperated. “But we’ll wait for another hour or so I guess.”
Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who Trump at one point considered naming secretary of State, was unusually sharp in his scolding of the Trump White House.
“Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happened,” he told reporters Monday night. “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes a worrisome environment.”
Republicans say they’re trying to move their agenda forward. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said that the chamber has been largely able to do its work despite the repeated eruptions.
“These are daily — well not daily but they seem like daily — distractions. And you just have to manage around them,” he said. “We’re proceeding according to plan, but less drama on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue would be a good thing.”
Some Republicans continue to stand by their president.
Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Trump is still positioned to bring needed change to Washington.
“When people elected the president they knew they were electing somebody different because they wanted things to change in Washington and I think he has unique potential to bring change to the system and voters knew what they were doing.”
But asked if there is a different mood among Republicans this week, he responded, “Well it’s only Tuesday.” And asked at what point would he say, enough is enough, he said, “You’re coming up with some hypothetical thing in the future where I would say this?”
For Democrats, Trump’s travails offer new hope for congressional elections in 2018. Even though they face a daunting electoral map, Trump’s unpopularity could put some long-held GOP districts in their reach.
Democrats have been faulting Republicans for failing to criticize Trump.
“What we need is courage and patriotism from the Republicans, and what we cannot have is mumbling in the direction of being concerned or troubled or wanting more information,” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said. “What we need is true patriotism from Republicans and that comes in actions and not words.”